Any intimation of presidential mortality is cause for concern and grist for the political mill. George Bush's collapse at a state banquet in Tokyo may be nothing but a touch of tummy flu, one of the many bugs in epidemic proportion this winter. But it inevitably focuses attention on the president's health -- he suffered heart palpitations last March as a result of a thyroid condition -- and even more on the qualifications of Vice President Dan Quayle for the nation's highest office.
Mr. Bush, at 67, is a hyper-physical individual, a person who delights in his lean physique and jogging and golfing or playing tennis at every opportunity. He pushes himself, almost at a manic pace that sometimes spills over into ragged rhetoric when questioned on public issues. No couch potato he. On his current arduous swing through Asia he has endured long, grueling air flights through a dozen time zones, broiling heat, bone-chilling cold, banquets, receptions, press conferences, diplomatic dialogue, photo opportunities and 18-hour days.
Actuarially, an American male of 67 can expect to live an average of 13.4 more years. So Mr. Bush, who has said ill-health is the only factor that would cause him not to seek re-election this year, should have a good chance of easily making it through a second term, when he would be 72.
Yet the presidential office is so crucial that any sign of human frailty has an impact. Woodrow Wilson, at 62, suffered a stroke that left him pretty much incapacitated during the final 17 months of his presidency. Warren Harding, at 58, died in office from what seemed a combination of stomach upset and stroke that may have been a heart attack. Franklin D. Roosevelt, at 63, died in office of a coronary thrombosis after soldiering through over two decades of paralysis. Dwight D. Eisenhower was 65 when he had a heart attack that many, wrongly, thought would preclude a second term.
Given the present circumstances, the nation deserves -- and probably will get -- a thorough diagnosis of Mr. Bush's health. Disclosure has been the order of the day (mostly) since Eisenhower's bowel movements became a matter for daily White House bulletins. There was Lyndon B. Johnson showing off his abdominal scar. And diagrams of the polyp removal from Ronald Reagan's colon.
After the first shock in Tokyo, the presidential entourage soft-pedaled hard, hoping Mr. Bush would be up and ready today for more statesmanship. The president's fellow citizens, and many other co-habitants of this globe, share these sentiments -- not only out of human concern but because Mr. Quayle is the proverbial heartbeat away.
If questions about Mr. Bush's health turn out to be more than a 24-hour wonder, some elements in the Republican Party may contract Quayle-dumping fever. But, ironically, the greater the chances that Mr. Quayle might succeed to the presidency on short notice, the less likely is a challenge to the vice president. As for the Democrats, their lot is to stand aside and be discreet.