Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News

If you were, like most of us, preoccupied with holiday preparations this past week, you may have missed the news that Rudy Giuliani spent last Wednesday night in a hospital in St. Louis. The immediate word was that the former New York mayor suffered from flu-like symptoms, a slightly odd locution that drew the immediate attention of the press corps. Was it a high fever, early-stage pneumonia, stomach illness? Or, perhaps, did Giuliani's handlers use the influenza story to cover up something bigger, perhaps a recurrence of hizzoner's cancer? The fact that Giuliani emerged from the hospital the next day appearing flu-free only intensified the questioning.

Presently, the former mayor gave an interview to George Stephanopoulos, which was featured on the latter's Sunday morning gabfest. According to Giuliani, a bad headache, made worse by the pressurization of his airplane cabin, had forced him to order a return to Missouri, at which time he checked into the Barnes Jewish Hospital. Could reporters speak to his doctor, Stephanopoulos asked? Sure, replied Giuliani, but not until after Christmas because the doctor was "tied up until then, and also I’ve got to make sure I get all the cancer tests back, and he’s going to put together a complete picture." And the dog ate the X-rays. Now I don't know of too many people who enter a hospital battling flu-like symptoms and wind up undergoing tests for malignant tumors, but Rudy is a cancer-survivor, as they say these days, so maybe that's standard operating procedure.

Anyhow, we'll evidently soon learn that the former mayor is as healthy as a thrice-married horse, allowing us to return to more important matters such as Hillary Clinton's stubborn unwillingness to wear dresses. The larger question, however, will remain out there just waiting to re-emerge as soon as Barack Obama sneezes one time too many or George W. Bush loses another battle with a salted pretzel. How much do we deserve to know about the health of those who seek to lead us?

I suppose we can begin with the obvious. We should certainly be permitted to learn whether a president or presidential candidate suffers from significant mental impairment. And by this I mean something other than the inability to tell the truth, or string together a coherent sentence, or revise strategy in the face of overwhelming evidence of failure. These deficiencies, all possessed by the incumbent, would, alas, not show up on any brain scan and are thus not disqualifying. Rather, I am thinking about dementia or Alzheimer's or something of that nature. It remains unclear, for example, just when Ronald Reagan's troubles began, but if his doctors suspected a problem during the Gipper's second term in office, the country definitely should have been informed.

Short of that, however, what else do we really need to know? Both Giuliani and Fred Thompson have had diseases that could have been, but were not, fatal. It is often difficult even to predict imminent death unless the person is so desperately ill that the average voter will immediately recognize that fact without the benefit of professional consultation. Franklin Roosevelt was near the end when he was elected to a fourth term as president in 1944. But it was impossible to know precisely when he would expire until he actually did. In the meantime, his mind was sound and what the electorate didn't know didn't hurt them. Besides, as Bush has shown, even the healthiest of us is but one improperly ingested snack food away from doom.

This obsession we—or more properly, the news media—have over health stories and medical records betrays a na├»ve sense that the presidency rests in the hands of a single man. Presidents die, they get replaced. Life goes on. Presidencies are interrupted in any number of terrible ways, some by acts of God, some by lone gunmen in empty warehouses. This idea that we have any real sense of a candidate's future is simply illusory.

Therefore, let's put an end to all this discussion of medical history and medical records. The modern presidential campaign demands vigor, and those who lack the energy to endure it, for any reason, will quickly fall to the side (see Thompson, Fred). If a candidate makes it through two years of endless public appearances, airplane rides, New Hampshire winters, and Rotary Club chicken dinners, then he or she should be considered, prima facie, healthy enough to serve as Commander in Chief. And if something should happen somewhere along the line, whether natural or criminal, we will turn, as the Constitution tells us to, in the direction of the Vice President.

If the past century taught us anything, it is that our powers to predict are nonexistent. The oldest elected president made it through eight full years in office; the youngest didn't even reach his forty-seventh birthday. The men who replaced the fallen (and, in one case, dishonored) chief executives were themselves, on average, equal to the jobs they inherited. Some (LBJ and Truman, most recently) subsequently won election in their own right.

The quest for the American presidency is quite likely the most invasive public spectacle ever developed by human beings. Thousands of highly qualified individuals pass on the opportunity to contend for their parties' nominations because they don't wish to surrender every grain of privacy in their lives. Some of this surrender is necessary and some is simply the inevitable byproduct of our celebrity-centered culture. But we can and should draw the line at a person's medical records.

Next time, Rudy, tell Stephanopoulos to stuff it.

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