In Media Glare, Candidates Now Disclose Infirmities
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, Oregon's Democratic candidate for the Senate, travels his vast and varied state with all the implements of modern campaigning -- the cell phone, the MapQuest directions to the next coffee klatch, the computer printout of potential donors to call on long rides. But Bradbury has yet another accessory that in ways is more modern than all of these: a director's chair.
The 6-foot 4-inch challenger to Sen. Gordon Smith (R) sits in the chair -- which puts him at eye level with people of average size -- at events that require lots of standing and schmoozing. Conscious of its novelty, he explains it matter-of-factly in opening remarks, as he did at a recent fundraiser: "I'm sitting on this chair because if I stand up for half an hour, I'll really start to have some disability. I've learned to manage this very well. The reason I have this problem is I have multiple sclerosis."
Bradbury, 53, is a pioneer of a new era in national politics: the age of the openly ill. It began slowly and without fanfare, but now is unmistakably underway -- from the White House, where officials issue periodic updates on Vice President Cheney's diseased heart, to the campaign trail, where the clamor for candor now goes beyond campaign finances and positions on prescription drugs and into candidates' medical records.
Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) disclosed in February that he, like Bradbury, has mild multiple sclerosis, or MS. Former attorney general Janet Reno (D) made her doctor available to reporters to answer concerns about her Parkinson's disease during the Florida gubernatorial primary campaign. Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan (R) won a three-way primary for governor in March after his third bout with cancer, which he disclosed. At least 20 members of Congress have told constituents that they have cancer, and several others have said they struggled with depression.
Even the fictional president on television's "West Wing," Josiah Bartlett, has an illness -- MS -- and faces a backlash for having kept it secret as a candidate.
Analysts say the frankness mirrors changes in society, from growing acceptance of people with disabilities to an aging electorate facing its own health issues to a full-disclosure media culture in which the privacy of public figures has become an oxymoron.
"The very important thing is: One, people deserve to know; and two, they are going to know," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opened his medical records to reporters in 2000 to answer concerns that his long-ago imprisonment in Vietnam affected his emotional fitness to be president. Later that year, McCain learned that he had skin cancer, and was about to announce it when reporters broke the news first. Then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was similarly scooped on his prostate cancer diagnosis.
Gone are the days when presidents from Grover Cleveland to Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy managed to hide severe illnesses and disability, assuming voters otherwise would lose confidence in them. Polls taken last year after extensive news coverage of Cheney's surgery to reopen a blocked coronary artery -- and his quick return to work -- found that 60 percent of voters felt his ability to do his job was unchanged.
An emerging body of polling data suggests that politicians' infirmities aren't an issue with voters -- as long as they are honest about them and demonstrate they're up to the job.
'Like a Mark of Honesty'
The polls are revealing not just about politics, but also about Americans' complicated feelings toward aging, illness and the promise of medical technology. Seasoned strategists have been surprised to find that illness can carry an upside.
"Voters understand these people have faced a struggle," said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, who has polled for Reno, Wellstone and Bradbury. "They see qualities like dedication, perseverance. They'll say this person understands the problems real people face. It humanizes them."
Bradbury, known here as a vigorous public servant who happens to walk with a pronounced limp, said he was pleasantly surprised when several audiences applauded after his no-nonsense explanation for his director's chair.
"I appreciated him starting out like that -- like a mark of honesty," Lee Lancaster, a food co-op executive, said after a Bradbury event. "I knew he had some sort of condition, and he told me as much as I needed to know: He's faced it and he's got it under control and now he's running for the Senate."
Still, some voters have an unspoken unease that eludes traditional polls, not unlike in the past, when people said they would happily vote for women or minorities for high office, but then did not. "They know there's a socially correct answer," said Democratic strategist Geoff Garin.
Florida voters generally told pollsters they thought Reno's service as U.S. attorney general proved that she was up to being governor. Later, in focus groups, some were shown film clips of her giving speeches with her arms and hands shaking, a common symptom of Parkinson's that didn't hinder her as attorney general. "Some people who said at first, 'It's not an issue,' said afterwards, 'That bothered me,' " a campaign source said.
Mellman said voters tend to weigh a candidate's disability against the demands of a job, holding executives -- governors or presidents -- to higher standards than legislators. And voters, particularly seniors, often project from their own experiences with illness, a huge wild card as the population ages.
Exit polls in North Carolina in 1992, when then-Sen. Terry Sanford (D) lost his reelection bid to Republican Lauch Faircloth, showed that many people older than 65 voted against Sanford out of concern for his well-publicized heart disease (Sanford had heart surgery that fall, at age 75). "They thought he was taking on more than he could handle," said a Sanford adviser.
Mary Matalin, counselor to Cheney and a seasoned GOP strategist, said she believes voters watch carefully how candidates confront an illness. "When they vote for you, what they're really voting for is your judgment: How will you deal with that unforeseen event?" she said. "How someone reacts to a life-threatening disease is that intangible thing you can't poll for and you can't define, but people subliminally are looking for it."
Bradbury's experiences are a barometer of how much this conversation has changed, and why.
'I Wanted to Have a Future'
He was diagnosed with MS in 1980, while running for state legislature -- his first race, which he won. A year earlier, an increasingly disabled Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) had retired from Congress at 42, telling no one except friends that she had MS.
"My initial response was to not talk about it," Bradbury said over lunch during a recent campaign swing. "I wanted to have a future."
Bradbury broke his silence in the mid-1980s. At a Labor Day barbecue, he had sudden weakness in one leg -- a result of impeded nerve impulses due to MS -- and swerved noticeably as he walked from a beer tent to the speakers' stage. He was told that some people thought he was drunk.
"At that point, I thought I'd rather have people know I had a disability than think I was drunk," he said. "I sent a letter to all my supporters and then started talking to the media about the fact that, well, I have MS."
Oregon voters appear more open than most to frank discussions about life, disease, even death. They twice approved by referenda the nation's only physician-assisted death statute. In fact, incumbent Smith set off an uproar when he voted for the Bush administration's attempt to nullify it.
Bradbury himself appears unusually equipped to cope with illness. He exudes resilience and good humor, despite having encountered adversity at an early age -- both his parents died in a car accident when he was 8. "When that happens, you either sink or swim," said Betsy Harrison, Bradbury's first wife, still a close friend, who also lost both parents in an accident. "Bill and I were swimmers."
Bradbury has a mild case of MS, an often-crippling disease, which has left him unable to walk more than a block or two at once. He has fallen in public from time to time, but colleagues said he scrambles to his feet, laughs at himself and goes about his business. If elected, he said, he would use a scooter to get around the Senate.
Other than when he explains his director's chair, Bradbury does not talk about his MS, even when the opportunity arises -- as in his attacks on Smith's vote for a broad ban on cloning embryos, including for stem cell research. Millions of people with diseases may be denied possible cures as a result, Bradbury says, without mentioning that he is among them.
Asked why, he answered, "I honestly don't see it that way. To me, it's so basic. It's not about me or my MS. It's about making everyone's life better."
Bradbury is an underdog against Smith, who holds a five-to-one fundraising advantage. A former frozen-food company executive, Smith has a reputation at home as a moderate, although Bradbury brands him as far more conservative than Oregon constituents on abortion, the environment, prescription drugs and other issues. Polls show Smith ahead, but with less than 50 percent support, which makes the race one of several that analysts say could affect the balance in the narrowly divided Senate.
It already has affected the conversation here about illness and disability, as have many races in other states in a year when the youngest baby boomers are turning 40. Disability rights groups say that disabling disease strikes most often between ages 40 and 70, putting the vast majority of the electorate now within its sights.
"The real story here," the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized when Wellstone revealed that he had MS, "is that another lawmaker has turned out to be human. He's experiencing the ordinary -- and not-so-ordinary -- ailments that come to all of us eventually. . . . Wise people navigate these bumps in the road with realism and a loping gait -- doing the work they do."
Staff researcher Bob Lyford contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company