Saul and Nebuchadnezzar and the Mental Health of Politial Leaders (part 5 in sermon series, “Lessons for Political Leaders in the Bible”




    Some years ago when I was teaching preaching as my primary professional responsibility, a President of our country who read scripture literally, somehow connected the teaching about the battle of Armageddon detailed in the book of Revelation to an all out nuclear war on Planet Earth that would destroy most if not all of us.  The weight of having at his disposal the codes to initiate nuclear attack on our enemies, which would surely invite the same in return from them, became his preoccupation, and he began to take increasingly notice of the military person or persons never more than a few feet from him carrying a briefcase that people in the know call “the football.”  In that essentially indestructible briefcase kind of carrier, is everything any President of the United States needs to initiate the release of nuclear weapons.  This particular President had begun to ponder the possibility, according to news reports at the time, that he might very well be God’s instrument for initiating humanity’s last war.  The Battle of Armageddon in the book made up entirely of symbols is not to be taken literally.  It was a scary time.  After a few days, nothing more was said of it that I ever saw.  If there were ever an argument for requiring a President to get the approval of Congress before launching/declaring war, and if there ever were an argument for the essential reality of bipartisan commitments to work together for the well-being of the nation if the not the world, that was it.  Perhaps it still is.
    This historical tidbit raises more than one issue of significance, but the one on which I wish to focus today is how important it is for political leaders, especially those with the most power, to be mentally healthy.  Yes, there have been plenty of nut-cases at the helm of many a powerful nation throughout human history; in recent years, we seem to have had more crazy political power people heading up nations than at many other times in history.  One wonders if the sane ones remain in the minority.
    The mental health of our leaders is regarded by many as a very private matter–just as any of us struggling with mental and emotional illness would want to be accorded privacy were we to be plagued with one of the many mental or emotional illnesses that could befall any one of us.  
    For those who have responsibility for others, though, there must be someone watching even at a distance to be sure that the illness burdening a parent or a politician doesn’t lead to hurt or abuse of their charges.   As much as we’d like to be able to say, “That’s a completely private matter,” it isn’t when it leads to hurting others at home, at church, at work, or at the Pentagon.
    A few months ago Jesse Jackson Jr. seems to have disappeared; even his staff acted–and maybe they were being truthful–as if they had no idea where he’d gone.  I can’t remember so much stir about a missing public figure since the former Governor of South Carolina was gallivanting with his mistress leaving no one in the know, including his wife and children, and no one in charge.  
    Reporters dug in their heels and said they’d find out what was going on whatever it took.  Bits and pieces of the puzzle began to drop here, then there.  Finally, we were hearing from the press that Congressperson Jackson had gone on secret medical leave and didn’t want anyone to know that he was receiving treatment for whatever his ailment was, and at the time, few people knew.  Some family members told the Press that Jackson had collapsed at home and was rushed to a hospital, where it was decided that he needed more specialized treatment for whatever his disorder was.  We still didn’t know.  
    Surely, some of you remember that when President Reagan had a colonoscopy and polyps were discovered, the evening news had artists who drew pictures of what polyps in a colon looked like showing their work to the world, each one with a different medical specialist explaining why those polyps had to be removed right away.  Probably never before had so many millions of people around the world been thinking of one person’s colon all at the same time and with such intensity.  Toss modesty and privacy for key public figures.
    Congressperson Jackson, it was finally divulged to the public, was being treated at the Mayo Clinic for serious depression and gastrointestinal complications.  In fact, some of those involved in his treatment were initially calling the treatment being provided:  intensive care for depression.  Well, anyone who has treated and/or suffered from many types of depression know that there is no such thing as intensive care for the dark disease.  Medications have to be tested.  The need for talk therapy has to be considered.  None of these procedures move at any kind of rapid fire pace–much to the frustration of HMO’s.            
    Eventually, Jackson’s treatment team released to the public a more specific diagnosis; they said he was suffering with level 2 bipolar disorder.  This meant that things could be a lot worse.  Not to minimize the horrible emotional suffering he must have been enduring, he was not constantly depressed; he was periodically depressed, and he had, in addition, occasional episodes of hypomania.   
    Here’s a definition of hypomania from


A condition similar to mania but less severe. The symptoms are similar with elevated mood, increased activity, decreased need for sleep, grandiosity, racing thoughts, and the like. However, hypomanic episodes differ in that they do not cause significant distress or impair one’s work, family, or social life in an obvious way while manic episodes do.  Hypomanic people tend to be unusually cheerful, have more than ample energy, and need little sleep. Hypomania is a pleasurable state. It may confer a heightened sense of creativity and power. However, hypomania can subtly impair a person’s judgment. Too much confidence can conceal the consequences of decisions.  Hypomania can be difficult to diagnose because it may masquerade as mere happiness. It is important to diagnose hypomania because, as an expression of bipolar disorder, it can cycle into depression and carry an increased risk of suicide.  


    He checked out of the Mayo Clinic only a couple of weeks ago, and having had the benefit of a second home in DC while he has served in Congress–his primary residence being in Chicago–he has, as a first order of business, had to put his DC home up for sale in the hopes of trying to raise enough money to pay for some of his staggering medical bills, which some sources say exceed 2.5 million dollars.  I guess that means he has a policy that put limits on how much can be paid on any one illness.
    I think this is all very sad, but Jackson has decided to be open from here on out about his mental health.  This will help many others, and as long as he freely shares it isn’t an invasion of privacy.  
    It is also a fact, that if there are decisions resting on him in the conducting of his duties directly to his constituents or in congressional committees, his mental health must be kept in mind.  There’s no way around it.

    Did you know there were political leaders whose lives are chronicled in Judeo-Christian scripture who suffered with mental illnesses?  The two I’d like to mention briefly today are subjects in ancient Hebrew scripture–though not both were Hebrews.  I won’t give any detail to a couple of New Testament standouts, Herod the Great and the truly insane Roman Emperor at the end of the first century, Domitian, who is a prominent figure in the book of Revelation–though he may never have figured that out because of the code language used by the author.
    Saul was Israel’s first King.  After who knows how long, functioning as a loosely-knit confederation of independent tribes joining together to consider matters of mutual interest or need, they begged God to give them a King and, reluctantly, the storytellers tell us, God granted that wish.  One wonders if God had reservations why God would give in to the pleas and demands of the Hebrews that they have a King like all the nations worth knowing or knowing about.  
    If you grew up in Sunday School, you almost certainly know that King Saul was often troubled in spirit, perhaps it was depression, and the only thing that would calm the King was the right kind of music.  His cabinet found a boy who had the magic touch with the lyre, a forerunner of the harp, and when he played for Saul, his troubles left him.  
    Saul, as you can well imagine, loved David like or almost like a son.  And why not?  David seemed to have been the only one in Saul’s Kingdom who could make the dark clouds that saddened and often incapacitated him disappear.
    Sadly, there were deeper problems.  Saul was paranoid.  He began to fear that someone would take his throne someday other than someone of whom he approved, like his son, Jonathan.  David was beloved outside Saul’s court as well, and Saul began to fear that David’s popularity as someone who could dispel dark clouds might get him an appointment from God to be Saul’s successor.  Loving David though he did, his mental illness propelled him into a plan to kill David or have him killed.
    The other leader with mental illness that I’d mentioned is the great and powerful King of the Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar developed one of the truly unique expressions of mental illness.  He suffered from lycanthropy.  He thought for a good segment of his reign that he was a wolf.  If you don’t believe me, the next time you read your Bible–probably when you’re in a hotel with no WiFi signal leaving you nothing to read but the Gideon Bible in the top drawer of your bedside table, read it for yourself.  
    Maybe he had a fair amount of body hair already, but he added to that by not allowing anyone to cut his beard or the hair on his head.  He refused to allow his finger nails or toe nails to be cut because, thinking himself a wolf, he needed his claws for protection and attack.  He even paced the rooftop of his palace staring at the moon; as far as I know, no one told any stories about his howling at the moon.
    This polytheistic King believed that God restored him to his right mind, and the praise of the one and only God there is by one of the most powerful people on the face of the earth at the time who happened to be a polytheist, is one of several deeply moving parts of Hebrew scripture.  He recovered.  We have had other kinds of wolves in the White House.  
    One of my all time favorite television shows was “The West Wing,” that engaging drama in which Martin Sheen played the President of the United States and Stockard Channing the First Lady.  I was very devoted to the show and did everything I could not to miss an installment; catching up in those days–not so long ago–wasn’t as easy as it is today.  
    I’m not sure I’d ever thought about how heavily the burdens of state weigh on our thoughtful Presidents until I saw a captivating episode of this great drama, now a part of television history.  Having more problems to deal with than is humanly possible has to be a way of life for one of our Presidents.  Martin Sheen’s character, Josiah “Jed” Bartlett, was no different, but some cracks began showing up in his considerable armor that the staff closest to him along with members of his family noticed.  Eventually he couldn’t sleep.  Five nights in a row, as I recall, and not a wink of sleep.  One of his senior advisors decided he had to do something to try to help his President so this advisor covertly brings a psychiatrist to the White House to meet with the President and hopefully give the sensitive leader personal peace again.
    Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center.  He is author of a book with with a title I think is a compelling:   A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  He makes the foundational proposal that there are some leaders who suffer with certain mental illnesses, particularly certain types of mania or depression, and aspects of their mental illness can cause them to function better in times of crisis than those who, so far as the public knows, have a complete clean slate when it comes to mental or emotional illness.   Should we be guardedly hopeful?
    Historical records were secondary sources for Dr. Ghaemi; his primary sources were medical records of a number of noted leaders who struggled with some kind of mental illness while at the height of power including President Lincoln and Dr. King–Martin Luther King Jr., I mean.  Quoting Dr. Ghaemi:  “Creativity and resilience is higher in people with mania, and realism and empathy are higher in people with depression compared to ‘normal subjects.’”  
    Many of you probably knew–I did not–that both Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Mohandas Gandhi attempted suicide when they were teenagers.  Both suffered with depression as adults, and both would have to be classified as among the greatest leaders in modern history–and maybe in a time frame much larger than that.  
    President Kennedy really got a thorough going over by this Boston psychiatrist.  It makes you want to have your medical records buried or cremated with you!  Quoting Dr. Ghaemi again:


I went through the John F. Kennedy medical records in his archives….His behaviors have been well known — his hypersexuality, his high energy.  What I do is to go into the medical records and show how those symptoms really are consistent with this temperament called hyperthymic temperament, which means mild manic symptoms all the time. And then I base these diagnoses not just on the individual’s symptoms, but family history, because these illnesses are genetic….He was treated extensively with steroids, which worsened his manic symptoms. He was even treated with a neuroleptic, an anti-psychotic, when he was in the White House, for a period of depression….As those drugs made his hyperthymic symptoms worse, he was a less successful as a leader.  I think that was the case in the first year or two of his administration. Then his doctors got it under control.  They basically forced him to stop using so many of those drugs…,and this correlates with the last year of his administration, when a lot of his policies changed remarkably, and he became that major civil rights advocate, that very resilient Cold War leader whom we now look back on and value very much.



    The following letter was mailed to each member of Congress a few weeks before the most recent presidential election in our country.  The writers refer to themselves as “we the undersigned” or “we the people.”  They are serious Obama haters, or at least they were four years ago.  


To: U.S. Congress
The 2008 presidential election in America is the most crucial election in this country’s history, not because the issues are that critical but because of Senator Barack Hussein Obama. Sen. Obama likely suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). NPD is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. The following are some of the symptoms of NPD that can be seen in Sen. Obama. He subtly misrepresents facts, opportunistically shifts positions, ignores data that conflicts with his fantasy world, is overly confident and acts presidential despite commensurate merits and his modest life achievements, considers himself above the law, talks about himself in third person, has messianic vision of himself and his “mission,” displays false modesty while often evincing haughtiness, sublimates aggression and behaves as eternal adolescents.  [And until Obama came along we never saw any of these behaviors on Capitol Hill.  Right!]  NPD is the prime disorder experienced by madmen of history — from Hitler to Stalin, Mao, Kim, Osama, Khomeini, Saddam and Idi Amin. These men wreaked havoc and killed millions. Yet, they were confident they were right in what they were doing. Few suspected their insanity because narcissists are often intelligent and cunning.  It is time we people of the world demand that those who aspire to become heads of any country, particularly of the USA, submit to rigorous mental check ups. Millions of lives depend on the sanity of these leaders. If the physical health of presidential candidates is important, how much more important is their mental health?  Therefore, we the people, urge the lawmakers of all democratic countries and particularly the U.S. Congress to raise the issue and make this requirement into a law. It makes no sense that pilots should be required to submit to a psychiatric evaluation for operating commercial aircraft while no such test is needed to run a country. A narcissist in the White House would spell disaster for mankind.



I bring up a sensitive topic–as if I haven’t already done so.  During President Reagan’s second term in office, he showed signs read by those closest to him, those who loved him and supported him, as diminished mental capacity.  During most, perhaps all, of Reagan’s presidency, Lesley Stahl was the chief White House correspondent for CBS.  She wrote about these concerns in a book, Reporting Live, published fourteen years after the Reagans returned to California and she went on to other journalistic responsibilities.  
    Given an appointment to say her farewells to the man about whom she had written and spoken so much, she was told before entering the Oval Office by Press Secretary Larry Speakes that she was prohibited from asking any questions on any subject.   Ms. Stahl’s husband and daughter were with her for this momentous occasion.  She recalls that when they entered the office President Reagan just standing there looking at a sculpture of a rearing horse.  Now, in her own words:


Reagan was as shriveled as a kumquat. He was so frail, his skin so paper-thin. I could almost see the sunlight through the back of his withered neck…His eyes were coated. Larry introduced us, but he had to shout. Had Reagan turned off his hearing aid?  Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought. I have to go out on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the President of the United States is a doddering space cadet. My heart began to hammer with the import….I was aware of the delicacy with which I would have to write my script. But I was quite sure of my diagnosis.


    Stahl never made that report to the nation.  She like others just weren’t sure what to make of the fact that when the bright lights went on and the cameras began rolling President Reagan seemed to “recover.”  Still, “The Gipper was slipping while he was occupying the most powerful position in the world, and the public was kept in the dark.”
    Robin McKie was the Science Editor for The Observer in 2001 when he reported on the concern of Dr.James Toole, then president of the World Federation of Neurology, who had gone public with his admonition that from this point on presidents and prime ministers must be scrutinized for signs of mental instability.  He said,  

A crackup by a world leader would have the most devastating consequences; yet, nothing has been done to monitor their psychological wellbeing….Without safeguards, their symptoms are likely to be missed by their peers, with potentially catastrophic consequences….[R]ecent discoveries of lesser mental disabilities in leaders could still have had devastating results. A good example is Woodrow Wilson, US President at the end of the First World War, who suffered a stroke and was not able to function fully….In the US, a physician is now appointed to monitor the President’s health, both physically and mentally. If she or he becomes worried, the doctor can alert the White House staff. The trouble is that the White House staff members all owe their jobs to the President whom they are unlikely to agree to suspend unless his condition reaches a state that is impossible to cover up. By then, of course, it may be too late.


Comments are closed.