The mental health of presidents comes to the fore with publication of Taylor Branch's book about eight years of confessional conversations with Bill Clinton in the White House.
In more than 70 hours-long sessions, Clinton poured out his feelings to a journalist/friend, rather than a therapist, a cathartic adventure that recalls the furtive relationship of Richard Nixon with a psychiatrically oriented doctor that started before his Checkers crisis and continued through Watergate and beyond.
The political revelations in Branch's "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President” are less interesting than the fact of the relationship, an insight into how Clinton tried to ease the psychological isolation of being besieged by Whitewater and impeachment along with the usual stresses of the presidency.
The tapes also prompt reflection about Barack Obama's psyche as he faces the emotional storms of his time. The session last night with Letterman raises questions about whether a president can be too accessible, along with marvel about how comfortable this one seems to be in his own skin.
"I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election" was Obama's flip dismissal of how much racism is involved in the furor over health care reform.
Such breeziness may mask darker aspects of his personality, but thus far, Obama seems a safer bet to keep his composure during crisis than the fake-sincere Bill Clinton and the paranoid Unindicted Coconspirator of Watergate.
During the Nixon years, I lived on a hillside in Sherman, Ct., abutting the home of Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, who was later revealed to be the President's secret shrink. On occasions when military helicopters came swooping in, neighbors would shrug and say, "Nixon must be flipping out again."
In the Clinton tapes, there is a distant Nixon connection. Taylor Branch, in addition to his award-winning trilogy about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., also ghost-wrote "Blind Ambition," the Watergate memoir of John Dean, who ratted out his boss during the Congressional hearings.
In the 24/7 pressure cooker of the Oval Office, the man in the hot seat has to get emotional relief wherever he can. As Clinton laments in the new tapes, the Lewinsky scandal came about because he was feeling sorry for himself and "just cracked."