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Addiction, Brain Damage and the President "Dry Drunk" Syndrome and George W. Bush

Bush and Dry Drunk Syndrome

by KATHERINE Van WORMER

Ordinarily I would not use this term. But when I came across the article “Dry Drunk” – – Is Bush Making a Cry for Help? in American Politics Journal by Alan Bisbort, I was ready to concede, in the case of George W. Bush, the phrase may be quite apt.

Dry drunk is a slang term used by members and supporters of Alcoholics Anonymous and substance abuse counselors to describe the recovering alcoholic who is no longer drinking, one who is dry, but whose thinking is clouded. Such an individual is said to be dry but not truly sober. Such an individual tends to go to extremes.

It was when I started noticing the extreme language that colored President Bush’s speeches that I began to wonder. First there were the terms– “crusade” and “infinite justice” that were later withdrawn. Next came “evil doers,” “axis of evil,” and “regime change”, terms that have almost become clich?s in the mass media. Something about the polarized thinking and the obsessive repetition reminded me of many of the recovering alcoholics/addicts I had treated. (A point worth noting is that because of the connection between addiction and “stinking thinking,” relapse prevention usually consists of work in the cognitive area). Having worked with recovering alcoholics for years, I flinched at the single-mindedness and ego- and ethnocentricity in the President’s speeches. (My husband likened his phraseology to the gardener character played by Peter Sellers in the movie, Being There). Since words are the tools, the representations, of thought, I wondered what Bush’s choice of words said about where he was coming from. Or where we would be going.

First, in this essay, we will look at the characteristics of the so-called “dry drunk;” then we will see if they apply to this individual, our president; and then we will review his drinking history for the record. What is the dry drunk syndrome? “Dry drunk” traits consist of:

Exaggerated self-importance and pomposity Grandiose behavior A rigid, judgmental outlook Impatience Childish behavior Irresponsible behavior Irrational rationalization Projection Overreaction

Clearly, George W. Bush has all these traits except exaggerated self importance. He may be pompous, especially with regard to international dealings, but his actual importance hardly can be exaggerated. His power, in fact, is such that if he collapses into paranoia, a large part of the world will collapse with him. Unfortunately, there are some indications of paranoia in statements such as the following: “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.” The trait of projection is evidenced here as well, projection of the fact that we are ready to attack onto another nation which may not be so inclined.

Bush’s rigid, judgmental outlook comes across in virtually all his speeches. To fight evil, Bush is ready to take on the world, in almost a Biblical sense. Consider his statement with reference to Israel: “Look my job isn’t to try to nuance. I think moral clarity is important… this is evil versus good.”

Bush’s tendency to dichotomize reality is not on the Internet list above, but it should be, as this tendency to polarize is symptomatic of the classic addictive thinking pattern. I describe this thinking distortion in Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective as either/or reasoning– “either you are with us or against us.” Oddly, Bush used those very words in his dealings with other nations. All-or-nothing thinking is a related mode of thinking commonly found in newly recovering alcoholics/addicts. Such a worldview traps people in a pattern of destructive behavior.

Obsessive thought patterns are also pronounced in persons prone to addiction. There are organic reasons for this due to brain chemistry irregularities; messages in one part of the brain become stuck there. This leads to maddening repetition of thoughts. President Bush seems unduly focused on getting revenge on Saddam Hussein (“he tried to kill my Dad”) leading the country and the world into war, accordingly.

Grandiosity enters the picture as well. What Bush is proposing to Congress is not the right to attack on one country but a total shift in military policy: America would now have the right to take military action before the adversary even has the capacity to attack. This is in violation, of course, of international law as well as national precedent. How to explain this grandiose request? Jane Bryant Quinn provides the most commonly offered explanation in a recent Newsweek editorial, “Iraq: It’s the Oil, Stupid.” Many other opponents of the Bush doctrine similarly seek a rational motive behind the obsession over first, the war on terror and now, Iraq. I believe the explanation goes deeper than oil, that Bush’s logic is being given too much credit; I believe his obsession is far more visceral.

On this very day, a peace protestor in Portland held up the sign, “Drunk on Power.” This, I believe, is closer to the truth. The drive for power can be an unquenchable thirst, addictive in itself. Senator William Fulbright, in his popular bestseller of the 1960s, The Arrogance of Power, masterfully described the essence of power-hungry politics as the pursuit of power; this he conceived as an end in itself. “The causes and consequences of war may have more to do with pathology than with politics,” he wrote, “more to do with irrational pressures of pride and pain than with rational calculation of advantage and profit.”

Another “dry drunk” trait is impatience. Bush is far from a patient man: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize,” he said in a speech he gave at West Point, “we will have waited too long.” Significantly, Bush only waited for the United Nations and for Congress to take up the matter of Iraq’s disarmament with extreme reluctance.

Alan Bisbort argues that Bush possesses the characteristics of the “dry drunk” in terms of: his incoherence while speaking away from the script; his irritability with anyone (for example, Germany’s Schr?der) who dares disagree with him; and his dangerous obsessing about only one thing (Iraq) to the exclusion of all other things.

In short, George W. Bush seems to possess the traits characteristic of addictive persons who still have the thought patterns that accompany substance abuse. If we consult the latest scientific findings, we will discover that scientists can now observe changes that occur in the brain as a result of heavy alcohol and other drug abuse. Some of these changes may be permanent. Except in extreme cases, however, these cognitive impairments would not be obvious to most observers.

To reach any conclusions we need of course to know Bush’s personal history relevant to drinking/drug use. To this end I consulted several biographies. Yes, there was much drunkenness, years of binge drinking starting in college, at least one conviction for DUI in 1976 in Maine, and one arrest before that for a drunken episode involving theft of a Christmas wreath. According to J.D. Hatfield’s book, Fortunate Son, Bush later explained:

“[A]lcohol began to compete with my energies….I’d lose focus.” Although he once said he couldn’t remember a day he hadn’t had a drink, he added that he didn’t believe he was “clinically alcoholic.” Even his father, who had known for years that his son had a serious drinking problem, publicly proclaimed: “He was never an alcoholic. It’s just he knows he can’t hold his liquor.”

Bush drank heavily for over 20 years until he made the decision to abstain at age 40. About this time he became a “born again Christian,” going as usual from one extreme to the other. During an Oprah interview, Bush acknowledged that his wife had told him he needed to think about what he was doing. When asked in another interview about his reported drug use, he answered honestly, “I’m not going to talk about what I did 20 to 30 years ago.”

That there might be a tendency toward addiction in Bush’s family is indicated in the recent arrests or criticism of his daughters for underage drinking and his niece for cocaine possession. Bush, of course, deserves credit for his realization that he can’t drink moderately, and his decision today to abstain. The fact that he doesn’t drink moderately, may be suggestive of an inability to handle alcohol. In any case, Bush has clearly gotten his life in order and is in good physical condition, careful to exercise and rest when he needs to do so. The fact that some residual effects from his earlier substance abuse, however slight, might cloud the U.S. President’s thinking and judgment is frightening, however, in the context of the current global crisis.

One final consideration that might come into play in the foreign policy realm relates to Bush’s history relevant to his father. The Bush biography reveals the story of a boy named for his father, sent to the exclusive private school in the East where his father’s reputation as star athlete and later war hero were still remembered. The younger George’s achievements were dwarfed in the school’s memory of his father. Athletically he could not achieve his father’s laurels, being smaller and perhaps less strong. His drinking bouts and lack of intellectual gifts held him back as well. He was popular and well liked, however. His military record was mediocre as compared to his father’s as well. Bush entered the Texas National Guard. What he did there remains largely a mystery. There are reports of a lot of barhopping during this period. It would be only natural that Bush would want to prove himself today, that he would feel somewhat uncomfortable following, as before, in his father’s footsteps. I mention these things because when you follow his speeches, Bush seems bent on a personal crusade. One motive is to avenge his father. Another seems to be to prove himself to his father. In fact, Bush seems to be trying somehow to achieve what his father failed to do – – to finish the job of the Gulf War, to get the “evildoer” Saddam.

To summarize, George W. Bush manifests all the classic patterns of what alcoholics in recovery call “the dry drunk.” His behavior is consistent with barely noticeable but meaningful brain damage brought on by years of heavy drinking and possible cocaine use. All the classic patterns of addictive thinking that are spelled out in my book are here:

the tendency to go to extremes (leading America into a massive 100 billion dollar strike-first war);

a “kill or be killed mentality;” the tunnel vision; “I” as opposed to “we” thinking; the black and white polarized thought processes (good versus evil, all or nothing thinking). His drive to finish his father’s battles is of no small significance, psychologically.

If the public (and politicians) could only see what Fulbright noted as the pathology in the politics. One day, sadly, they will.

KATHERINE van WORMER is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa Co-author of Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective (2002). She can be reached at: Katherine.VanWormer@uni.edu