Was running for president, Paul Tsongas said...

WHEN HE

May 11, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WHEN HE was running for president, Paul Tsongas said severaltimes that after his bone marrow transplant treatment for lymphoma in 1986, he remained free of cancer. But last month his doctors admitted that he had in fact had a recurrence.

This medical secrecy in a political setting recalled for this trivialist one of the most famous hidden diagnoses in history.

In early 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was serving the last year of his unprecedented third term. In was wartime, and it was assumed he would seek a fourth term to finish the job he had started. If. If his health would allow it.

He was only 62, but he looked terrible. Every week brought a new rumor. He was in Mayo. He was at Lahey. He was suffering from this, from that.

Ross McIntire, the White House physician, insisted to the press that the rumors were unfounded, that the president was fit. He said he was in "excellent condition."

But in March, FDR was in low spirits and seemed always fatigued. He went secretly to Bethesda Naval Hospital for a complete physical. A young Navy cardiologist, Howard Bruenn, performed the examination. He found that FDR was suffering from hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure and acute bronchitis.

Bruenn saw him every day thereafter. He put him on daily medication, a strict diet, ordered him to drastically reduce his workday and his cigarette consumption. But there is evidence that he never told his patient the true state of his health. Bruenn told McIntyre, but may have been ordered not to reveal the full diagnosis to the president. Dr. McIntire was an admiral; Dr. Bruenn, a lieutenant commander.

The White House continued to deny all rumors. Not only that, but to dispel them, to display his vigor, the president even rode in an open convertible for five hours campaigning in a New York rain that fall, perhaps accelerating his decline.

People assumed the haggard-looking FDR was just showing the strain of being wartime commander in chief. In November, they voted for him and an unknown newcomer to his ticket, Sen. Harry Truman, who was chosen to replace Vice President Henry Wallace, a man unliked by party leaders.

Had voters known of the state of the president's health, would they have voted for him or for his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey? Hard to say. But surely the public should have been told. Candidates should always level with the public on this issue.

Roosevelt was inaugurated in January 1945. Less than three months later, while sitting for a portrait, he rubbed the back of his neck, said, "I have a terrific headache," then suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died.

This was not the first time FDR deceived the public about his health. But in that case, there was a much happier ending.

, Thursday: Eradicating polio.

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