Lyndon B. Johnson’s Dreams

Lyndon B. Johnson’s dreams, told in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson 1: Paralysis

“[H]e began having, night after night, a terrifying dream, in which he would see himself sitting absolutely still, in a big, straight chair.  In the dream, the chair stood in the middle of the great, open plains.  A stampede of cattle was coming toward him.  He tried to move, but he could not.  He cried out again and again for his mother, but no one came.”

In Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 32.

Lyndon B. Johnson served as President from 1963-1969.  He told this and the following three dream reports to former White House aide and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose biography of Johnson referred to the dreams as meaningful reflections of his deeper character.  This one appears to be the earliest dream Johnson ever remembered, from around the age of five, and it’s a horrifying image of titanic danger and existential vulnerability.  Goodwin’s interpretation moves in a psychoanalytic direction, treating the recurrent nightmares as symbolic indications of Johnson’s oedipal attachment to his mother.  His strenuous effort to deny these powerful desires, Goodwin says, gave him a lifelong fear of paralysis and a corresponding impulse toward restless action and movement.  I won’t dispute her references to Johnson’s personal life, but I think the dreams can also be interpreted as expressions of a precocious awareness of human finitude and weakness in the face of powers vastly beyond his or anyone’s ability to control.  Whatever he may or may not have felt about his mother, Johnson’s recurrent nightmares can be seen as reflecting the primal glimmers of mortality that have haunted the sleep of children throughout history, and that often reappear at moments of crisis later in adulthood.

Johnson told Goodwin that the paralysis dreams came back after his heart attack in 1955, when he was forty-six years old.  He had just been elected Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, and the months of recuperation required following the heart attack seemed to create the conditions for the titanic terrors to reappear.  He said, “They [the nightmares] got worse after my heart attack.  For I knew then how awful it was to lose command of myself, to be dependent on others.  I couldn’t stand it.”  This sounds like a pretty good self-analysis of the dreams, more convincing to me than the psychoanalytic approach.

Lyndon Johnson 2: Chained to His Work

“In the dream, I had finished signing one stack of letters and had turned my chair toward the window.  The activity on the street below suggested to me that it was just past five o’clock.  All of Washington, it seemed, was on the street, leaving work for the day, heading for home.  Suddenly, I decided I’d pack up and go home, too.  For once, I decided, it would be nice to join all those people on the street and have an early dinner with my family.  I started to get up from my chair, but I couldn’t move.  I looked down at my legs and saw they were manacled to the chair with a heavy chain.  I tried to break the chain, but I couldn’t.  I tried again and failed again.  Once more and I gave up; I reached for the second stack of mail.  I placed it directly in front of me, and got back to work.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 167

Johnson said this dream came in the early 1960’s, when he was serving as Vice-President to John F. Kennedy.  It merged his recurrent paralysis nightmares with his current political dissatisfactions.  The Vice-Presidency carries enormous prestige but little actual power (until recently, at least), and Johnson’s acute fear of losing control meant he found the position frustrating in the extreme.  His unhappiness with his job resonates, of course, with the multitude of work-related nightmares discussed in previous pages.  Like many, many other American workers, Johnson felt trapped in his job, cut off from his family, and too weak to escape the greater powers that controlled his life.

Lyndon Johnson 3: The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson

“[H]e was lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House….His head was still his, but from the neck down his body was [a] thin, paralyzed body….”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 342

This version of his recurrent dream started in 1967, when Johnson was reaching the end of his first full term as President.  He associated the awful vision to 1) his grandmother, whose frail body frightened him as a child, and 2) Woodrow Wilson, President from 1912-1920, a fellow Democrat whose failures Johnson saw as emblematic of weak, impotent leadership.  Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 that effectively ended his presidency.  Johnson worried about his inherited vulnerability to strokes (many in his family had died from them), and he had good reason to fear that his administration would be judged, like Wilson’s, as a failure given the worsening war in Vietnam and the terrible race riots flaring up in several American cities.  His emaciating physical transformation in the dream signaled, I suspect, Johnson’s growing awareness that he would soon be joining the ranks of the presidential ancestors.  Goodwin says that when Johnson had these dreams he would get out of bed and walk through the White House with a small flashlight until he reached Wilson’s portrait, where he would physically touch the portrait in hope of consolation, or sympathy, or perhaps forgiveness.

Lyndon Johnson 4: Swimming in Circles

“In the dream he saw himself swimming in a river.  He was swimming from the center toward the shore.  He swam and swam, but he never seemed to get any closer.  He turned around to swim to the other shore, but again he got nowhere.  He was simply going round and round in circles.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 344

Johnson faced a truly paralyzing situation in 1968, the time when he reported having this dream.  The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese marked a terrible setback the American war cause, the urban racial unrest was intensifying all over the country, student protests were growing in size and passion—if Johnson tried to run for another term he would face a terrible battle against his opponents for the dubious prize of four more years of the same, and yet if he simply gave up and retreated to his home in Texas he would be roundly denounced as a shameless coward.  According to Goodwin, this new variation of his paralysis dream helped Johnson find his way beyond the either-or dilemma.  He decided he would not campaign for a second term so he could better serve the country as a non-partisan leader and peacemaker during the dangerous months ahead.  Goodwin says Johnson connected this dream with a story his grandfather told about cattle getting caught in river whirlpools, which I believe deepens the thematic relations with his early childhood paralysis nightmares of the thundering herd of cattle.  In this dream, more than fifty years after the bad dreams first started, Johnson discovers that even the mighty cattle are vulnerable to the greater power represented by the whirlpool—just so, even the mighty President of the United States must yield to the greater power of historical forces beyond his individual ability to control.  I see the image of the circles as key here.  Johnson decided to devote his final years to the cause of historical continuity, carrying on the legacy of leadership from one President to the next, responsibly ending the service of his administration in order to prepare the country for the next cycle of political decision-making.  He stopped trying to fight against his existential weakness, and chose instead to
embrace the final stage of his political career as an opportunity to immerse himself wholeheartedly in the swirling currents of history.

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

images“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term. 

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next. 

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]

Bush, Clinton, and the politics of sleep deprivation

Bush, Clinton, and the politics of sleep deprivation

Falling asleep involves a very real return to nature, a surrender of conscious control to the innate needs of the biological organism that is our body.  Sleeping is a time when our animal heritage is most apparent, when the basic instincts of self-maintenance and preservation take over.  A good night’s sleep helps replenish our physical, emotional, and intellectual energies in preparation for the challenges of each coming day.   

My research suggests that conservatives tend to sleep better than liberals.  More evidence is needed to substantiate this idea, but I think it makes good sense. Conservatives are more likely to value the qualities of control, personal power, and safety from outside forces.  A sound, steady, restful sleep is consistent with that kind of outlook on life.  Liberals, on the other hand, are more oriented towards openness and empathy for others, and as a result they’re more vulnerable to external disruptions and loss of personal control.  Those ideals appear to be correlated with the variable quality of their sleep. 

Our last two Presidents play out this pattern in almost comic-book form.  Throughout his two terms in office, Bill Clinton was well-known for his restless intelligence, late-night conversational manias, and blatant disregard for other people’s normal patterns of waking and sleeping.  He was, by his own admission, a functional insomniac. George W. Bush, meanwhile, has always let it be known that he’s an early-to-bed kind of guy.  Right after his 2000 election he said this would be his first historical goal: “I’m trying to set the record as the President who got to bed earliest on Inauguration Day.”  In a 2006 interview with People magazine he said that despite the stressful responsibilities of his job, he actually sleeps quite soundly: “I must tell you, I’m sleeping much better than people would assume.”  He let on that he occasionally takes sleep aids when traveling and drinks a couple of cups of coffee each morning, but other than that he’s a clean living person in both waking and sleeping: “I don’t drink alcohol.  I can remember when I used to drink, I had trouble sleeping at night.”[i] 

Pundits on both sides of the ideological divide have interpreted these sleep differences as meaningful signs of each President’s deeper nature.  Many liberals were excited by Clinton’s boundless energy, and they’re horrified by the oblivious tranquility of Bush’s sleep (fumed one internet commentator: “So he has no trouble sleeping, huh? Well, that’s just freaking wonderful.  Because of him, nearly 3000 American service members are sleeping soundly, too.  But they won’t get to wake up the next day.”[ii]).  In contrast, conservatives regarded the nocturnal hyperactivity of Clinton as a symptom of his broader lack of personal discipline, and they praise Bush for his healthy-minded good sense (Steve Chapman wrote in the National Review, “conservatives can take his devotion to sleep as a good omen.  Respecting his body’s own basic requirements suggests an appreciation of human limits that is the beginning of wisdom about governance.”[iii]).  Both interpretations are correct in identifying the connection between sleep patterns and political sensibilities.  Where they differ is in the valuation of a sound sleep.  Liberals see Bush’s excessive fondness for sleep as a sign of being morally obtuse, and conservatives regard Clinton’s erratic sleep as indicating an unstable character.   

Actually, Clinton himself has admitted to the governmental problems caused by poor sleep habits.  In a remarkable aside during a question-and-answer session that followed a 2002 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, the former President said the following:

“But one of the reasons Washington is so…you’re going to all laugh when I say this, and you’re going to think, ‘He’s like everybody else.  You know, when they get out of office they get a little dotty and a little crazy.’  But I’m telling you, one of the reasons that there is often such an acrimonious atmosphere in Washington, is that too many members of the Congress in both parties are sleep deprived.  And you just think about it….  I’m telling you that the main reason you ought to be for some kind of meaningful campaign reform is that half the people in Congress are physically exhausted all the time from trying to make their votes, learn about the issues, come home on the weekend, and spend all their time raising money.  And it clouds your judgment, and it undermines your ability to be relaxed and respectful in dealing with your adversaries.  Now, every one of you, if you’ve ever been really tired a long time—you know, I spent 30 years sleep-deprived and I got used to it—but I’m serious, you have no idea how much more physically difficult it is to be a member of Congress now than it was before you had to raise this kind of money.  And you ought to take a burden off their back and keep working until we get real campaign finance reform, so you can have people who are thinking, who have time to think about these issues and study them, and who believe they will have the opportunity to argue their position to their constituents, so they don’t have to take the most extreme possible position because that’s what it takes to get the money, and they’re not so exhausted from chasing around after the money, that they never get a decent night’s sleep.  Now, you can laugh about that, but I’m telling you, if you had all the members of Congress here and they were being honest with you, they’d tell you that I just told you one of the most important reasons that you could ever be for this.”[iv]

Whatever you think of his pitch for campaign finance reform, Clinton is offering an intriguing signal of liberal willingness to value sleep as a necessity for healthy political functioning.  He speaks of sleep deprivation as an open secret in Washington life, a problem that everyone recognizes and suffers yet feels helpless to change. Why shouldn’t conservatives agree with him?  After all, their hero Ronald Reagan was famously (though perhaps not accurately; link to conversation with Martin Anderson) insistent on having the opportunity to enjoy an afternoon nap each day. 

Looking beyond Washington to the nation as a whole, much more attention should be paid to the fact that millions of Americans suffer problems with the length and quality of their sleep.  In terms of the basic requirements for human health, this is equivalent to saying that millions of Americans don’t have adequate food, water, or air.   Sleep is just as essential to our survival, yet it’s rarely recognized as such.  If we take seriously the strong scientific evidence that sleep is crucial to our mental and physical well-being, then we have to ask some difficult questions.  What is the collective damage caused by the sleep-depriving pressures of contemporary American life?  How many accidents, injuries, fights, mistakes, misunderstandings, and screw-ups are caused by people who are stumbling through the day in an exhausted, semi-conscious fog?  Of all our basic physical needs, why is sleep the one we seem most willing to sacrifice, the one we regularly disrupt and deny in favor of other interests?  Do we really want a future where we’ll have to take a pill to stay awake and another one to go to sleep?  We’re in danger of becoming a society of sleep anorexics, fooling ourselves into thinking it’s perfectly normal to starve our body of what it needs, pretending that no one else notices the harmful, emaciating effects.

I see no reason why conservatives and liberals shouldn’t agree that improving sleep hygiene should be a public health priority.  Any number of easy, low-cost measures (e.g., early education about sleep and health, more flexible employment and school schedules, stronger noise ordinances, work-place nap rooms, etc.) could produce rapid and tangible benefits in people’s well-being. The problems caused by sleeplessness involve more than just higher frequencies of accidents, injuries, and illnesses.  I’d go further and say that inadequate sleep represents a subtle but genuine threat to our psychological ability to function as responsible citizens in a democracy.  Our form of government depends on—was created in the name of—free-thinking individuals capable of making their own decisions about their lives.  A political system like ours presupposes a high degree of maturity, self-awareness, and wisdom on the part of the citizens, and we risk weakening those vital qualities when we deny our biological need for long, steady, restful sleep.


[i]  Reported by ABC News, December 14, 2006.
[ii]  Email commentary to the ABC News report of December 14, 2006.
[iii] Steve Chapman, “Sweet Dreams, W.: A little presidential pillow talk – George W. Bush’s love for good night’s sleep,” National Review, February 19, 2001.
[iv] Speech given January 29, 2002.

Hillary Clinton’s 1994 Dreams

1994 dreams of Hillary Clinton: article from Detroit News

On May 19, 1994 The Detroit News published an article on the front of its “Accent” section titled “I Dream of Hillary,” along with a sidebar article on the recently published book Dreams of Bill by Julia Anderson-Miller and her husband Bruce Miller.  The Hillary dreams were gathered by Frank Marafiote, editor of The Hillary Clinton Quarterly newsletter.  Reporter David Jacobson asked Marafiote, psychologist Robert Van de Castle, and myself to comment on a selection of the dreams.  To see a pdf of the original article, click here.

I regret using the phrase ‘big old’ in the article’s featured quote. It was an unnecessary choice of words.

Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Value

Originally Published in The San Francisco Chronicle (Insight Article) August 17, 2008

“I am something of a dreamer” – so confesses Barack Obama in the closing pages of “Dreams from My Father,” the title of which signaled his strong interest in dreaming, both metaphorical and literal. In the book, he shared two of his own dreams, each testifying to his long struggle with the morally and spiritually ambiguous legacy of his father.

Surprisingly, neither Obama’s critics nor his supporters seem to recognize the significance of what those two dreams reveal about his core values.

As he prepares to deliver his address at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama’s personal dreams provide a deeper psychological context for this key campaign moment.

The first dream occurred when he was a senior at Columbia University, a year after receiving the news of his father’s death. It started with him on a bus trip with an unknown group of people. An old white man sitting nearby informed him that “our treatment of the old test(s) our souls.” The bus stopped at a grand hotel, and the old man somehow changed into a small black girl who began playing the piano.

The trip continued. Obama dozed, then awakened (still in the dream), alone. He got off the bus and stood in front of a rough stone building. Inside, a lawyer and judge discussed the fate of Obama’s father, a captive in jail. The judge was willing to release him, but the lawyer argued against it because of “the need to maintain order.”

Then Obama stood before the door to his father’s cell. He unlocked it and confronted the man, with “only a cloth wrapped around his waist.” His father smiled and said, ” ‘Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.’ ” They embraced, but suddenly his father shrank in size, and a deep sadness overcame him. Obama tried to lead his father out of the cell, but he declined and told his son he should go.

The dream ended there, and Obama said, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him – and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”

We would need Obama’s personal associations to make sense of all the dream’s details. But no special psychoanalytic training is required to identify his feelings of hostility toward his father, intermixed with love and sadness.

Obama narrated this dream in the closing pages of the memoir’s first part, titled “Origins.” The dream marked the end of his beginning, the initiation of his journey back to his ancestral roots, back to his father’s grave in Africa.

The second dream came during that journey, when Obama and his half-sister were traveling by train to his family’s village in Kenya. She told him a disturbing story about their grandfather and his cruelly self-righteous behavior toward others. That night, Obama dreamed he was walking through a Kenyan village filled with playful children and pleasant old men. Suddenly everyone panicked at the sight of something behind Obama; they ran for safety as he heard the growl of a leopard. He fled in a mad dash, finally collapsing in exhaustion: “Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask.”

The detail of the loincloth appears in this dream as in the first, suggesting the giant figure’s tremendous size reflects a doubling of generational influence, the combined impact of his father’s and grandfather’s high moral demands.

If, as many dream researchers believe, one of the functions of nightmares involves the expression of unconscious conflicts between different parts of the psyche, then Obama’s nightmare can be seen as a call to greater awareness of shadow elements from his past – personal qualities he deplores in his paternal ancestors yet fears may dwell within him, too.

Again, we can’t know the full meaning of any dream without additional input from the dreamer. But Obama has told us enough in his memoir to draw at least one fairly straightforward conclusion: His dreams reveal him to be acutely conscious of the ever-present power of family tradition in his life. He may feel deeply ambivalent toward his ancestors, but he has discovered he must find a way to accept their continuing influence over him.

This suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.

Critics who portray him as an anarchist fail to appreciate this quality of his character. So, apparently, do those liberals who have been alarmed at the seeming “rightward shift” in his recent policy statements. His dreams suggest this is not just short-term electoral maneuvering but rather a reflection of a conviction that he must show respect for traditional wisdom, even as he tries to adapt that wisdom to changing circumstances of the present.

This article appeared on page G – 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Link to Article Online:
Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values,”
[link opens new window]

2008 Election Dreams: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain

In early 2008 Toronto novelist Sheila Heti initiated a website of people’s dreams of the two Democratic Presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Soon thereafter she added dreams of Republican candidate John McCain.   (

I’ve written three commentaries on these dreams: the first two originally appearing on the “Beacon Broadside” author’s blog  ( and the third appearing on the website.  The full text of all three is below.

Dreaming of Barack and Hillary (and John)

At the conclusion of a recent New Yorker story (3-10-08) about her new website posting people’s dreams of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Toronto novelist Sheila Heti said, “I sort of hope that the campaign managers will change the way candidates give speeches as a result of people’s dream lives.  It must be telling them something.”

These dreams do have the potential to reveal meaningful facets of people’s political beliefs.  The frequency and intensity of a politician’s appearance in people’s dreams can be taken as an accurate index of his or her personal charisma.  The more people dream of a politician, the more likely that politician has made a deep emotional impact on them (both positively and negatively—Heti’s website has instances of both).

In 1992, when I first studied dreams of politicians during that year’s Presidential election, I heard numerous dreams of Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and almost none of George H.W. Bush—no doubt where the charisma lay in that contest! As of today, Heti’s website contains 57 dreams of Obama, 49 of Hillary, and 2 of John McCain (to be fair, the space for McCain dreams was just created).  Now as then, the dreams offer a mix of the bizarre and the trivial, the profound and the absurd, the personally idiosyncratic and the socially relevant.  From a research perspective, the value of Heti’s website is that it provides further evidence that people dream not only about their private lives but also about public affairs like political contests.  Dreaming is not purely inward-looking; it also has the capacity to look outwards and express our feelings about the major concerns, conflicts, and challenges of our communities.

It should be noted that these kinds of anecdotal reports are limited in many ways.  The website offers almost no other information about the dreamer beyond the dream itself.  There are no additional associations from the dreamer about what the dream might mean to him or her, and no waking life context or background details.  The reports come from people in many different countries, and of course we can never be sure they aren’t just making up their dreams entirely (perhaps to put their favored candidate in a better light, or to cast aspersions on the candidate they want to lose).

With those caveats in mind, it can still be fun and potentially illuminating to ponder individual dreams like these:

“I was at a sweet country inn, the type of bed and breakfast that you would escape to for a romantic weekend. It could have been in upstate New York, or maybe New Hampshire. The inn was right next to a lake. A woman came down the stairs in a red bathing suit. She was magnetic, and everyone was staring at her. She carried herself so well in that bathing suit, even though her figure was not that of a supermodel. I admired her as well, and realized that I was having a little girl crush on Hillary, the lady in the bathing suit. However, I told my friends at the inn that I wasn’t going to vote for the dazzling senator.

”My friends were aghast. You mean, they said, that you won’t vote for your own Mother!”

(42-year old mother in Santa Monica, March 11)

“I was in a smoky, hazy hotel office/suite with Barack Obama. We had driven back together from a big rally and speech. He walked ahead of me and was dismissive, or maybe just distracted. I wasn’t sure whether he’d already won the presidency or was still just a candidate. I was acting as one of his assistants.

”I’d been respectfully carrying his coat and now I lay it on the bed. When I tried to engage him in some light banter about how he felt about the rally, he seemed distracted and annoyed. I was struck that in private, behind closed doors, he was a different man: cordial enough, certainly not mean-spirited, but his tone in private was nothing like his public persona.

”He reached for a pack of cigarettes, though the room was already smoky enough.”

(Tech start-up geek from California, March 10)

The best way to interpret these kinds of reports is to:

  1. keep it light (they’re dreams, after all!)
  2. be careful not to read too much into them, and
  3. use some of the basic methods of content analysis to highlight possible patterns of meaning.

I’m experimenting with different methods of analysis to study these dreams, and I’ll share my findings on this website over the next few of weeks.

Hopes and Warnings

Here are some of the questions I’ve heard people asking about these intriguing political fables from the nocturnal imagination.

Can we accept these as real dreams?
Cautiously, yes.  Some of the reports could easily be fake, but most sound genuine to me.

Why are so many people having dreams of Hillary and Barack?
It’s turning into a perfect storm of political dreaming.  First, the core supporters of both candidates (older white women for Hillary, multicultural youth for Barack) tend to be especially active dreamers—they are exactly the kinds of people who show up most often in dream classes and workshops, and I think it’s natural their political hopes and fears would find expression in their dreams.  Second, many Democrats are genuinely torn in both directions, and one thing we know from modern dream research is that people often experience an upsurge of dreaming during times of uncertainty and indecision.  And third, the feverish campaign coverage by the 24-hour news media has prompted unusually intense feelings of familiarity and intimacy with the candidates’ personal lives, to the point where we hear and think and talk about them almost non-stop.  In this kind of cultural environment, it would be surprising if we did not find at least some people dreaming about these omnipresent figures in the public eye.

So what exactly can we learn from these dreams?
Without a doubt, the Hillary and Barack dreams highlight the powerful interpersonal bonds each candidate has formed with his or her supporters.  There’s a good psychological reason why the electoral race is so close—both candidates are backed by passionately committed people whose dreams accurately reflect the emotional depths of their political convictions.  Here’s one of the positive Hillary dreams:

“Hillary Clinton and I were cleaning my parents’ attic. She was actually a lot of fun, and we got a lot of work done.”

(Posted Feb. 19 by “A Wife And Mother Who Scrapbooks”)

This is a neat little parable of Hillary’s candidacy—she’s more likeable than you might expect, and she’s going to work hard to clean up the mess left by the previous administration.

More surprising, perhaps, is how the dreams also point to the personality flaws and psychological shadows of the candidates.  For Hillary, this appears in dreams of her behaving angrily and aggressively.  An example:

“I was Hillary Clinton’s personal assistant and I was miserable, partially because we were working non-stop on little sleep, but also because she was a tyrant. It was about three in the morning after a rally. She yelled at me in front of a group of people for a small mix-up I had nothing to do with.”

(Posted on Feb. 25 by “A Woman Who Once Worked As An Assistant”)

In at least six reports, the dreamer does not like or support Hillary but feels compelled to lie to her about it:

“I was at a Kmart and Hillary was speaking to a small crowd. I began feeling really sorry for her and hugged her. Hillary asked me if I had voted for her. I hesitated and then said Yes, even though I hadn’t.”

(Posted on Feb. 27 by “A Middle-Aged Woman”)

Dreams like these suggest a perception of Hillary Clinton as strong and powerful but prone to using coercion and emotional manipulation to get her way.

The positive dreams of Barack are more numerous and more intense than those of Hillary, with what appears to be a higher percentage of good fortunes and magical events:

“I had such a great dream last night. Barack Obama came to my church and gave a speech. I don’t remember what he said, just that he was very eloquent. Afterwards he and his wife were standing near the doors, shaking hands. I went up to shake his hand and I was so nervous! He was like 8 feet tall in my dream, but when I reached out to take his hand he gave me the sweetest smile.”

(Posted Feb. 19 by a “Unitarian Universalist and Mom”)

The negative dreams of Barack point to the flip side of this giddy idealization: the potential for disappointment.  Quite a few of the Barack dreams leave the dreamer feeling unhappy, detached, and disillusioned—they want to stay close to him, they love being part of his wonderful movement, but they fear it can’t last:

“…He had been very nice to me on the run, when I felt I had him to myself, but then he became more interested in what was going on in the room and he ignored me. I felt hurt because of this and started to write him off, feeling that he wasn’t who he said he was….”

(Posted Feb. 28 by “A Student of Rhetoric in Louisiana”)

The warning that comes through in these dreams is that the higher the hopes you inspire, the more likely you are to disappoint those who have idealized your candidacy.

I’m still working on a more systematic evaluation of the dreams using word search and content analysis methods, and I’ll report on my findings as they emerge.  In the next posting I’ll take a look at the more salacious aspects of the dreams—Sex! Drugs! Violent death!  Celebrity cameos!—all the topics that give dreams such a good, wholesome reputation.

Wait a minute—Do you have some kind of political bias that’s influencing your interpretations?
Who do you support between Hillary and Barack?  I was raised in a Republican family and became a Libertarian in college; I’m now a registered Democrat with Green Party leanings, and a strong Obama supporter.  I don’t claim any special objectivity in my analysis of the dream reports, but I’m confident of my findings and I invite others to take a look at the dreams for themselves.  Every dream has multiple dimensions of meaning, and if you see something I’ve missed, feel free to tell me about it.

Downtrodden Hillary, Mystical Barack: An Analysis of the First 100 Dreams

People’s dreams of Hillary Clinton frequently show her as friendly and likeable, with an admirable willingness to help others.  But compared to dreams of Barack Obama, the Hillary dreams are darker and more negative.  They include more aggression than the Barack dreams and more emotions of fear, confusion, and sadness.  The Barack dreams have some negative elements, too, but they have an almost equally high number of friendly interactions and many more happy emotions and lucky/magical events—the very qualities I’ve found in previous research to define “mystical” dreams.

Before explaining these findings in more detail, I’d like to thank Sheila Heti for creating this excellent dream collection.  Her website offers a unique public forum for discussing dreams, and the dream reports themselves provide wonderful raw material for thinking about the political psychology of the 2008 U.S. Presidential race.  The fact that Sheila is Canadian adds an ironic twist to these quirky commentaries on the American political process.

The total number of Hillary and Barack dreams has just passed 100 for each candidate, and I believe that’s a minimal threshold number for identifying significant patterns in dream content.  In looking at anecdotal reports like these, it’s risky to focus too much attention on single dreams because we don’t have enough information from the individuals to confirm our interpretive hunches.  But if we look at a large number of dreams, broad patterns start to emerge that can be compared to other sources of dream research, giving us an empirical foundation for making inferences about what may or may not be going on in terms of meaning and significance.  (For more on research methods, see the note below.)

This analysis is still a work in progress.  So far I’ve noticed several themes and patterns that certainly appear to connect the first 100 dreams with prominent features of each candidate’s campaign activities and public persona.  That’s ultimately what makes these dreams so interesting: they reflect the passionate personal engagement many people feel towards Hillary and Barack, and they tell us what aspects of the campaign are making a particularly strong impact on the public imagination.

These are some of the content patterns I find most intriguing:

Friendliness: Both sets of dreams have an unusually high frequency of friendly social interactions.  Seventy six of the Barack dreams include at least one friendly act, as do eighty of the Hillary dreams (compared to 40% of the 1000 dreams gathered by Hall and Van de Castle, 1966; HVDC after this).  The most common theme in all these dreams is the dreamer and the candidate engaged in some kind of friendly behavior—hanging out together, talking, playing games, helping each other with problems.  This seems like an accurate indication of the psychological depth of support enjoyed by both candidates.

Aggression: Aggressive interactions, both physical and verbal, appear in 53 of the Hillary dreams and 39 of the Barack dreams (compared to 46% of the HVDC dreams).  Sixteen of the Hillary dreams and nine of the Barack dreams include some kind of physical aggression; Barack is the mostly the victim of physical aggression, while Hillary is equally its victim and instigator.  These frequencies suggest the perception of vulnerability and/or lack of aggressiveness in Barack and a confirmation of Hillary’s campaign claims to be a fighter, though not always in ways the dreamer appreciates.

Emotions. This is an especially difficult aspect of dream content to measure.  I use the HVDC system of five emotions (fear, anger, sadness, confusion, happiness) which, while not perfect, at least allows researchers a quick way of surveying the emotional terrain of a large set of dreams.  Analyzed in these terms, the most frequent emotions in the Hillary dreams are fear (34) and confusion (34), followed by happiness (23), sadness (16), and anger (15).  For Barack, the most frequent emotion is happiness (35), then confusion (28), fear (20), anger (16), and sadness (9).  When compared to the HVDC dreams, what stands out is the high happiness and low fear in the Barack dreams and the high confusion in the Hillary dreams.  No one would deny, I think, that Hillary’s campaign has been surprised by Obama’s rise and unsure of how to regain her once formidable lead.  Nor could anyone who’s attended an Obama rally dispute the idea that he’s trying to banish people’s fears and stimulate their hopes.  Perhaps one could say the Barack dreamers are too happy and not scared enough—that’s a charge made by his “realist” critics.

Good fortunes: A “good fortune,” in terms of content analysis, is anything magical or unusually beneficial that happens to a character.  Seven of the Hillary dreams have some kind of good fortune, a slightly lower proportion than the 12% in the HVDC dreams.  Nineteen of the Barack dreams include a good fortune, a relatively high number that seems plausibly related to his aura of extraordinary potential and transformative power.  It could also, following Bill Clinton, reflect an association between Barack and the “fairy tale” qualities of his candidacy.

Sexual dreams: There are 11 dreams with at least one sexual interaction in the Hillary set and 9 in the dreams of Barack, which seems about average to me.  All but one of the Barack sexual dreams involve him and the dreamer, and I suspect these dreams symbolize the intimate sense of personal connection his supporters feel with him.  Nearly half the sexual activities in the Hillary dreams do not involve her directly, but rather her husband Bill.  No surprise there—public perception of Hillary is still dogged by memories of Bill’s sexual misbehavior.

Shadows: The dreams also reveal the flaws and weaknesses people perceive in the two candidates.  In several of the Hillary dreams the dreamer feels compelled to lie to Hillary, to hide from her the dreamer’s true feelings, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of pity.  This can’t be a good sign of the trust and honesty people feel in relation to her campaign.  With Barack, people’s fears revolve around his failure to live up to their expectations; in some dreams he disappoints them, leaving the dreamer feeling deflated and alone.  The soaring idealization of Barack’s candidacy carries the risk of precipitous disillusionment as he attempts to make real the mystical aspirations of his supporters.

Note: I mentioned findings from two of my earlier articles: on mystical dreams, “Sacred Sleep: Scientific Contributions to the Study of Religiously Significant Dreaming,” in The New Science of Dreaming, edited by Deirdre Barrett and Patrick McNamara (Praeger, 2007); on good fortunes, “Revision of the Good Fortunes Scale: A New Tool for the Study of “Big” Dreams,” Dreaming (2006) 16.1:11-21.  I’ve written two earlier commentaries on the Hillary and Barack dreams on the Beacon Press author’s blog, where I say more about the limits of this kind of data and my own personal biases in studying these dreams.