February 28, 2002
By ROB HOTAKAINEN
Even as the disease weakened her muscles, making it difficult for her to walk, Rep. Barbara Jordan was determined to keep her ailment a secret.
When she retired from Congress in 1979, only a close circle of friends knew that the Texas Democrat suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS).
"To disclose your health issues is a modern phenomenon," said Betty Koed, assistant historian with the U.S. Senate.
After revealing on Sunday that his limp is the result of a mild form of MS, Sen. Paul Wellstone is back at work in Washington, where some are predicting that he might experience a temporary rise in popularity. But if the Minnesota Democrat wants to have a good shot at winning a third term, experts say he'd best take care of his health -and that he'd better not fall.
"The only way it's going to have an impact on this race is if something happens," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Duffy compared the situation to that of former Attorney General Janet Reno, who suffers from Parkinson's Disease and who's trying to unseat Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"She did very much the same thing that Wellstone did in having her doctor come out and saying that she was fine and that all she has is a tremor," said Duffy. "And then a few weeks ago she collapsed. ... The doctors have come out and said she was exhausted and overheated and that it wasn't Parkinson's-related, but it doesn't matter."
Wellstone is not the only national candidate with MS in this year's lineup.
Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat who's running against Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, said he told voters of his MS in the mid-1980s. Rumors began circulating when people saw him dragging his left foot at a Labor Day picnic.
"I was way in the back at the beer line, talking to people," Bradbury said. "And I had to hurry up front, and a lot of people looking at me walk thought I was drunk. I decided that it doesn't serve me to have people think I'm drunk."
Bradbury, 52, said he recently tripped and landed hard on his face as he headed to a press conference. If he's elected, he said, he's considering getting an electric scooter to get around in Washington.
On Capitol Hill, Wellstone is drawing comparisons to President Bartlet on the television drama "West Wing" - even though their responses have been very different. In the show, Bartlet gets into trouble after keeping his MS a secret not only from voters but from his inner circle.
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said that while Wellstone's gait has slowed very slightly, he is still among the most active senators. He said that other senators have approached him to ask about Wellstone's health, and that "people were sympathetic" in their concerns.
"It's one of those times when people respond to the person, not the politician," said Dayton.
In making his announcement, Wellstone, 57, said he "cannot be dishonest with people" and that he chose to go public after facing daily questions from people about his limp: The disease has affected his lower right leg, which he drags when he walks. J.D. Bartleson, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, said that Wellstone has the mild form of "primary progressive" MS. It progresses slowly, and Bartleson said that Wellstone can maintain his current activities. His disease was diagnosed about a month ago.
"I feel incredibly fortunate," said Wellstone. He said he can work 18 hours a day, "and this has not had any effect on me."
Republicans regard Wellstone as a vulnerable target, but national party officials say their focus will be on issues, not on his health.
"We agree with Senator Wellstone that this is not going to be an issue during the campaign," said Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
When Bradbury campaigns, he said he takes a director's chair to events, allowing him to sit at eye-level with guests who are standing. He has a cane but rarely uses it and, when he goes to a parade, he's on a horse or in a car. His disease, another milder form that was recently upgraded to secondary progressive MS, was first diagnosed in 1980. Every now and then, he said, the nerves in his left foot "stop communicating," making it easier for him to stumble.
"It makes it hard for me to walk long distances or to stand at a cocktail party for two hours and schmooze, which is more related to campaigning than it is to my job," he said. "It just doesn't interfere with getting the job done for the people, and that's the bottom line."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)
©2002 Caller-Times Publishing Co.