Fluttering Heartbeat

May 06, 1991

"Atrial fibrillation" is the technical medical term. Laymen know it as a rapid heartbeat. President Bush experienced the sensation Saturday afternoon at Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains after jogging for 35 minutes. Shortness of breath. Fatigue. It was diagnosed as a fluttering heartbeat, a missed step in the rhythm of the upper heart chambers that sent the president to Bethesda Naval Hospital and the nation into a period of worried anticipation.

Two million Americans experience that same sensation every year. This type of irregular heartbeat is the most common rhythm abnormality in people over 60. In the vast majority of cases, it can be treated with daily medication. Doctors agree it rarely signals the onset of a heart attack.

All this should be reassuring for anxious Americans. Mr. Bush took quick steps to get his discomfort checked out, thus giving doctors a far better chance at diagnosing and treating his condition. Unless further complications are uncovered, the president should be able to resume his normal work schedule soon.

There are some important lessons in this presidential medical scare. Though Mr. Bush is a physically vigorous 66 (he will turn 67 next month) and passed his annual exam last March with flying colors, it is time for him to moderate his pace. A slightly less grueling work routine and a more modest recreational calendar are in order. Too much depends on Mr. Bush retaining his good health.

The White House has tried to place this episode in an upbeat light. That is understandable, given the public's predisposition to panic. But presidential aides must not sugar-coat the news or mask the severity of what is happening, as occurred in 1955 when the White House intentionally misled the press about Dwight Eisenhower's heart attack. The public deserves the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth on this important matter.

Mr. Bush's health problem suddenly places Vice President Dan Quayle in the spotlight. The majority of Americans still consider Mr. Quayle unqualified to assume the presidency. Thus, the president's arrhythmia may have sent many peoples' own hearts afluttering. We will discuss later in the week the advisability of Mr. Quayle remaining on the Republican ticket in 1992. For now, the important thing is for the vice president to be brought into Mr. Bush's inner circle of advisers and to assume pivotal responsibilities. The more Mr. Quayle participates in White House decision-making, the better prepared he will be if he is ever called upon to act in Mr. Bush's place.

That doesn't appear likely at the moment. But the president has given the nation a jolt. When he resumes his regular routine, we hope that he takes things a bit easier, lets us know how he's feeling and starts giving Mr. Quayle a firmer grounding in running the Oval Office.

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