Political leaders' ailments under media microscope


WASHINGTON -- If voters have such a low opinion of politicians, as we're often told, why is such a fuss made about their health?

The recent word that Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a possible Democratic presidential candidate, had to undergo heart surgery and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a declared one, needed an operation for prostate cancer sent the world of political punditry spinning.

Both apparently are well on the road to recovery and likely to resume their political plans in days or weeks. But the surgeries injected just enough uncertainty into an already fuzzy Democratic presidential picture for 2004 to inspire considerable journalistic (pardon the expression) probing.

Much was made particularly of the fact that Mr. Kerry was caught in a minuscule fib in telling a reporter prior to his announcement of impending surgery that he wasn't sick. He explained, reasonably as far as I'm concerned, that he hadn't yet informed his family members at the time and wanted to break the news to them first.

Would he now, he was asked, have a credibility problem as a presidential candidate? Mr. Kerry said he didn't think so, and why should he? Yet the health of presidential candidates and presidents can be of legitimate concern to voters, and politicians' handlers have been known to take extreme measures to paint their principals as being in tiptop condition when it isn't always so.

The extent of Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralysis was shielded from public eyes, and we've learned only in recent years that President John F. Kennedy suffered through serious illnesses and infirmities before and during his White House years. If they were not totally debilitating, they apparently were serious enough to have drained his physical resources from time to time.

In the 1984 presidential campaign, some of President Ronald Reagan's confused and rambling answers in his first debate against Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale led to much post-debate speculation that Mr. Reagan, then 73, was seriously slipping mentally.

The Reagan handlers were alarmed, but the old trooper came back in the next debate and demolished the rumors. Reminded of the pressures on Mr. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and asked whether "you would be able to function in such circumstances," Mr. Reagan gave his famous reply: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

There have been obvious occasions when there have been legitimate public concerns about a politician's health, as in the heart and ileitis attacks suffered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the assassination attempt against Mr. Reagan.

In the first instance, Mr. Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, produced repeated assurances of his recovery. In the second, word of Mr. Reagan's pre-operation comment to his surgeons -- "I hope all of you fellas are Republicans" -- was quickly reported by press aides as reassurance.

You will also remember how, in President Bush's first months in office, news of Vice President Dick Cheney's heart attack sent political tremors rolling at a time many Bush critics were only half-joking that the Washington-wise Cheney was really running the government.

Unfortunately, politicians and their handlers have not always been forthcoming on the matter of health, and not just recently. When President Woodrow Wilson suffered the worst of a series of strokes in 1919, his wife kept even his Cabinet members from his presence. She monitored which matters were to be brought to him through her for policy decisions, leading to charges that a "petticoat government" was in charge.

So it's understandable that voters take an interest in their leaders' and would-be leaders' condition of health, and often are skeptical. But in this slow season for presidential politics, it probably hasn't hurt Senators Graham and Kerry to be singled out from the pack for a few days' national publicity, for whatever reason.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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