Feb 28, 2002
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- 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 had multiple sclerosis (MS).
"To disclose your health issues is a modern phenomenon," said Betty Koed, assistant historian with the U.S. Senate.
The decision whether to reveal health problems can be a tricky one for a political candidate, who must weigh the public's right to know about legitimate medical issues and how voters might react to the news.
Sen. Paul Wellstone announced on Sunday that his limp is the result of a mild form of MS, and some in Washington predict 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 former Attorney General Janet Reno, who has Parkinson's disease. Reno is 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," Duffy said. "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 candidate with MS running for federal office this year.
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 news conference. If elected, he said, he's considering getting an electric scooter to get around in Washington.
Wellstone's disclosure drew attention from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN and NBC. The attention is partly the result of the one-vote margin by which Democrats control the Senate and Wellstone's close race against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.
On Capitol Hill, Wellstone's disclosure is drawing comparisons to President Bartlet on the television drama "West Wing" -- even though the two responded very differently. In the show, Bartlet gets into trouble after keeping his MS a secret not only from voters but also from his inner circle.
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said that other senators have approached him to ask about Wellstone's health, noting that "people were sympathetic" in their concerns.
"It's one of those times when people respond to the person, not the politician," Dayton said.
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 "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," Wellstone said. 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 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.
Al Eisele, former press secretary to Walter Mondale and now the editor of the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, said that Wellstone's disclosure "further complicates the race." Until now, he said, the biggest question in the race has been how voters will react to Wellstone's decision to abandon a pledge he made in 1990 to serve only two terms.
"In many ways, it may help him: I think Minnesotans would recoil at any sign that the Republicans are trying to exploit this," said Eisele, adding that Wellstone did the right thing to disclose his disease. "It would be devastating if he had not disclosed it and somebody learned of it and he had to admit it."
In Minnesota, political observers are uncertain how the disclosure will play.
"Some people will see this as a reason not to support him, and some will see it as a reason to be more sympathetic towards him, and it'll probably end up being a wash," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield.
Noting that polls show the race in a statistical dead heat, D.J. Leary, co-editor of the newsletter Politics In Minnesota, said: "They're going to be so close that even normally insignificant things like a health issue may play much bigger than it would in a race where you've got a 3, 4 or 5 [percentage] point margin."
Duffy said that Wellstone must appear healthy for the remainder of the campaign to ensure that it doesn't become a larger story.
She predicted that any polls taken in the next month would show an increase in Wellstone's support but that ultimately it would level off. Calling Wellstone "a retail campaigner," she said she'll be watching closely to see whether he changes his campaign style: "Does he slow the schedule down? Does he suddenly ride in parades?"
Bradbury said that when he campaigns he takes a director's chair to events, allowing him to sit at eye-level with people 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."
-- Washington Bureau Correspondent
Todd Milbourn contributed to this report.
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