The Health of Candidates

December 03, 1992

If Paul Tsongas had won the Democratic nomination and been elected president, Americans now would be facing the uncomfortable prospect of having transition talk interrupted by updates on chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Rather than focusing on hopes for economic recovery and a fresh approach to problems plaguing the nation and the world, the country would be consumed with worry about the health of its new leader.

That unsettling possibility raises fresh questions about the obligation of presidential candidates to disclose medical records that most citizens have every right to keep private. Presidential candidates, however, are not ordinary citizens, and the state of their health is of more than private concern.

Mr. Tsongas, now 51, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1983, and in 1984 retired from the U.S. Senate after one term. In 1986 he underwent an experimental bone marrow transplant and, despite a recurrence in 1987, considered himself cured.

When he announced his candidacy, he said his doctors had given him a clean bill of health. Voters were left with the impression that the bone marrow transplant had been an unqualified success. Not until last April, after Mr. Tsongas left the race, did the relapse get wide attention. Mr. Tsongas' doctors said they did not consider it important. But other lymphoma experts stated that cures for this type of lymphoma are rare in cases in which a recurrence follows a bone marrow transplant.

Mr. Tsongas often referred to his candidacy as the "obligation of my survival," and many observers, including this newspaper, credited him with bringing attention to difficult economic issues that got short shrift in campaign rhetoric. But an examination of what was and wasn't made clear about his medical record during the campaign suggests that his candidacy leaves another legacy as well.

Mr. Tsongas has admitted that he mishandled questions about his health. He now urges full medical disclosure for all presidential candidates and suggests that President-elect Clinton set up a commission to determine how much medical information candidates should disclose. That seems a reasonable approach after a campaign in which candidates showed varying degrees of willingness to share their medical histories with the public. Mr. Clinton himself was slow to discuss his medical records with reporters.

Cancer in itself should not disqualify a person for the presidency, and even the healthiest candidate can develop medical problems once in office. That is the risk of mortality. But to the extent possible, voters have a right to know the risks individual candidates face -- and candidates have the right to some standards and guidelines in determining what medical information is relevant and what can legitimately be kept private.

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