No President can escape the fact that the White House press corps spends a good deal of its time in the unlicensed and unrelenting practice of psychoanalysis. Let a President sweat a little on the upper lip, grimace under pressure, slice the air with his hands out of context, giggle nervously, glance furtively, slouch, fidget with his hands or feet, turn his back on his wife at a public function, or stare vacantly at the Vice President with a crease of second doubts on his brow —and the truly dedicated President-watcher is in business.
The frustrated Freudians who inhabit the West Lobby of the White House also find a diagnostic bonanza in the idle remark, which the President may utter while the photographers are busy boosting Eastman stock. “Breakfast is a kind of nuisance to me,” President Richard M. Nixon remarked his first day in office, and the analysts gathered solemnly to ask, “Well, what do you make of that?” There had to be some aberration in anyone who failed to use a second cup of coffee to delay the day’s awful demands.
Mr. Nixon is not noted for his capacity for small talk, so one cannot dismiss it idly when he says that he likes to do his brainwork in a small room. The Freudian impulse is positively titillated by this disclosure. A veteran analyst, who first hung his shingle in the West Lobby during the Truman Administration, quickly observed that the President’s preference for cramped quarters in which to cogitate was plainly due to “an instinct to hide… it is the womb orientation of an insecure man barricading himself against the clamorous outside.”
At the swearing-in of the Cabinet by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a novice would have missed the significance of one Presidential gesture. When the Chief Justice instructed Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe to “raise your right hand,” the President, standing by, raised his own right hand, and then, with an embarrassed grin, dropped it. To the novice, this meant only that Mr. Nixon was perhaps preoccupied with Vietnam, the Middle East, crime in the streets, and sundry other cosmic issues preying on his mind. It had far greater significance to the diagnosticians. “He’s pretty uptight,” whispered one, “still not sure he’s made it. He wants to take every oath available to him.”
Attorney General John N. Mitchell’s raised right hand quivered like an aspen leaf in a windstorm when he took the oath, and the inexpert witness might have concluded that the man had had a bad night or was simply nervous. The analyst, of course, had a more profound explanation. Aware that Mitchell had been Mr. Nixon’s campaign manager, they saw the shaking hand as a manifestation of guilt and deduced that the Attorney General was asking himself, “What hath I wrought?”
At the ceremonial signing of an executive order, the President announced that his signature was unusual because “I’m a scrawler.” This was the signal for the West Lobby’s handwriting experts to get busy on Mr. Nixon’s penmanship for such defects of character as they might uncover. That study will take time, but it should be definitive when completed.
A President’s quirks, personal habits, demeanor under stress or at play, mannerisms, off-the-record tales—these are the diagnostic staples that sustain the custodians of the couch. Anybody can deal with the mimeographed press releases, usually written in the President’s name by someone else. But only the subtle-minded, intuitive veteran can handle, say, the guest list of a private, unannounced, intimate dinner at the White House. One of Mr. Nixon’s first such affairs included, among others, Dr. Henry Kissinger, J. Edgar Hoover, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. An enriching ingredient of life in the West Lobby is the study of such a guest list, which begins with an analysis of the President’s motives in assembling it and proceeds to imagining what small talk was exchanged during the dinner. It was Mrs. Longworth, by the way, who set the standard of conciseness for all amateur analysts by describing Warren G. Harding as “not a bad man, only a slob.”
There are times, of course, when the West Lobby analysts become patients themselves. This occurs when they take the stage as jack-in-the-box questioners at televised Presidential news conferences. So intensely do they jockey for Presidential recognition, so completely do they concentrate on remembering their own questions that they almost never follow through on answers to questions asked by others. It has been said that if the President said in one reply that the world was coming to an end tomorrow, the next questioner would ask whether he had any travel plans this summer.
The practice of psychoanalysis in the White House press room is not new. Lyndon B. Johnson could have spent the entire transition period instructing his successor in what to expect, for the enigmatic Texan was a grudging victim of the invisible couch in the West Lobby and spent more time on it than any President in living memory.
The sooner President Nixon accepts the fact that psychiatry is practiced without a license in the West Lobby, the better off he will be. His predecessor understood how the art was practiced but never learned to cope with it. If Mr. Nixon takes it as seriously as Mr. Johnson did, he, too, may reach the classic point of exasperation that President Johnson felt one day.
One morning when a space blast-off was scheduled, an assistant asked Mr. Johnson if he wanted the press called in to watch him watching television. “No,” he decreed. “If I smile, I don’t have concern for the safety of the astronauts. If I look grim, I’ve got cancer.”