Mental health history is simply politics in Va.

ON POLITICS

April 08, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Oliver North and Jim Miller, his Republican rival for the Senate in Virginia, seem to be operating on two false premises in their dustup over their history of seeking psychiatric advice.

The first mistaken assumption is that emotional stability is required to serve in the Senate. In fact, there are always two or three members of the Senate -- at the least -- who have some personality problems glaring enough so that a little therapy might be just the ticket.

The second false premise is that the voters are so out of touch with the real world that they consider someone disqualified from public service because he or she went to a psychiatrist a few years ago.

In fact, the rhubarb between North and Miller has nothing to do with the mental health of either man and everything to do with campaign tactics. Miller, the former Reagan administration budget director, raised a question about North's failure to disclose his medical records as part of a continuing campaign to nourish doubts about the Iran-contra figure among delegates to a Republican convention in June that will choose an opponent for the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Charles Robb. North had disclosed in an autobiography several years ago that he had been treated for emotional problems while in the Marines 20 years ago.

But no sooner had Miller raised the question than he was obliged to admit to reporters that he had seen a psychiatrist himself several years ago because of a "mood disorder" in his family.

The idea that such disclosures are political poison is, as Tipper Gore quickly noted, one of those "outdated stereotypes" about emotional problems and mental illness. In politics, the idea that psychiatric treatment is fatal dates back to the episode in 1972 when Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern chose Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate for vice president only to discover within days that Eagleton had received electric shock treatment for emotional depression.

That case was entirely different, however, because the politician in question was running for vice president and thus might succeed to the presidency and the responsibility for making decisions on nuclear war, a possibility that seemed far more real during the Cold War than it does today. By contrast, senators deal with most issues by holding public hearings, which doesn't necessarily require emotional balance.

More recently, moreover, voters have demonstrated repeatedly that they are no longer spooked by such disclosures of personal fallibility -- or at least not when they involve offices other than the presidency. Democrat Ann Richards was elected governor of Texas four years ago after admitting a history of alcoholism. At the same time another Democrat, former Sen. Lawton Chiles, was being elected governor of Florida after conceding he suffered emotional depression serious enough so that he took medication like Prozac.

In short, the electorate has grown up but some of the politicians have not. The true message in the episode is that Jim Miller still has a way to go to overcome Ollie North's early lead among Republicans and is using whatever ammunition is at hand.

The two candidates are spending most of their time now making their cases before groups of the 12,000 to 13,000 Republicans expected to attend the convention. No one has any hard data defining the race now but the common wisdom holds that North is probably ahead because he has the support of the Christian Coalition in a state and party in which there is a heavy concentration of voters from the religious right.

Miller, however, now is considered at least a plausible long shot because of polling data that have identified the high negatives of North and, perhaps to a lesser degree, because of the refusal of some longtime Republican leaders -- most notably Sen. John Warner -- to accept North as a bona fide choice for their Senate nomination.

The conventional wisdom also holds that Democrat Robb, despite his own formidable political baggage because of his personal life when he was governor, probably could defeat North in November but would lose to Miller. But that was before we learned -- horrors -- that Jim Miller once saw a shrink.

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