Giuliani shocked the USA and the rest of the world with the news that
he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. So far it is yet to be known
what effect it will have on his run for the New York seat of the US
Senate. The Mayor made a brave decision to let the public know, and in
what must already be a difficult time he now faces the addition of public
speculation about his health. Yet this is not the first time in this
election cycle where a candidate has been upfront about a personal issue.
Underlying Giuliani’s decision to be open about his illness is a trend
in which character and personal details are a seen to be a legitimate area
of concern for the voters. But the further blurring of public/private life
raises a number of pitfalls for candidates and isn’t always about giving
the voter a more informed choice.
In the USA people are used to others pouring out the intimate details
of their personal lives in front of the nation. The TV ‘confessional’
has become a defining characteristic of the American culture, ranging from
national institutions like Oprah, to
the notorious Jerry Springer.
But the demands of the armchair voyeur are no longer the exclusive domain
of mainstream trash television. In fact, you’d be as likely to see this
kind of spectacle on one of the country’s political programmes. The
media, knowing what gets the public going, show no restraint in asking the
candidates about their private lives. The candidates, often hoping to
connect with voters, are willing to provide some answers.
The fixation with the candidate’s health was evident in the
primaries. John McCain, the
Republican Senator from Arizona, released medical records that gave the
public the broadest look at the psychological profile of a presidential
candidate. McCain released 1,500 pages of records dating back to his
release as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Rumours that McCain had a fiery
temper quickly evolved into harder concerns that his time as a prisoner of
war left the Senator mentally unstable. The move from the McCain campaign
was geared to nip these concerns in the bud. Bill
Bradley was also prompted to release medical records after a heart
flutter raised concerns about his physical well being.
Away from health issues, candidates have given the public a window into
other parts of their personal lives. Al
Gore has been promoted as a casual family man from Tennessee who has
fought to overcome the personal crises in his life. He has made much of
the death of his sister from cancer in 1984, and his son’s near brush
with death in 1989. Gore now talks openly about these darker times, the
effect they had on him and the inner strength he has emerged with. Gore
doesn’t just put his own feelings on display, his family also talks to
the press. Not just his wife Tipper who has long been a talk show
favourite, but also his eldest daughter. The 26-year-old law student has
been described as the perfect advert for the new Gore. But why do we need
to know any of this? Gore has spent his whole life in the public eye, as
the son of a Senator, Congressman and as Vice-President. Haven’t people
had long enough to decide if Al’s a good bloke or not. And wouldn’t it
be better to spend time looking at what he wants to do in The White House.
Candidates can be just as candid about their failures and bad points as
well. Amid rumours of a wild and mis-spent youth, George
W. Bush admitted that as a young man he drank too much and that he has
not touched a drink in 13 years. But again, this is a man who has spent
his life in the public eye. Wouldn’t it be better to look what he has
done in those 13 sober years, and look more closely at his record as
Governor of Texas? Are people really worried that after the excitement of
an election victory, George W. won’t be able to resist turning the
inauguration ceremony into a colossal drinking bender?
There are several reasons why candidates may want to open up. In the
case of George W., it is a matter of sharing some level of detail to give
more credibility to his refusal to answer questions about rumours of
cocaine use. An approach that implicitly says: I’ll admit my mistakes,
but coke use isn’t among them. Another strategy concern in providing
personal information is to distract attention away from other areas that
may be more embarrassing for the candidates. Or quite simply it is the
realisation of the campaign managers that a little image can do more than
a book on policy. You can slash the budget for welfare benefits, ban
abortion and believe that people roaming the country with firearms are
just exercising a fundamental human right – but as long as you come
across as an honest guy who loves his wife and kids, that will always be
good enough for some people.
Given that America is a society that prides itself on its protections
for individual rights, you may be forgiven for asking what makes people
share this normally confidential information, and what gives the media the
right to demand it. The justification for this seems to be that no one
wants to elect a president who will drop dead soon after taking office.
This is what happened in 1944 when Roosevelt died 5 months after he was
elected. He was replaced for the rest of his term by Harry Truman. Another
argument for providing information is that it is potentially dangerous to
have an emotionally unstable person controlling the largest nuclear
arsenal in the world.
Yet if these concerns are genuine, the reassurances given by releasing
medical records seem hollow. There will always be a risk that someone will
develop health problems. In 1992 Paul Tsongas, the Massachusetts Senator
seeking the Democrat Presidential Nomination, released medical records to
show that his lymphoma was in remission and that he was in good health.
Despite this, Tsongas died in 1997 from complications from his cancer
treatment. With the psychological profiles, many people have mental
illnesses that are not recorded. Such illnesses can develop at any time.
The point is that whatever information the candidates put forward, the
President is only human and there will always be a risk.
More importantly many of the health problems that could come under
scrutiny do not prevent a president doing a good job. Had the same
standards for proof of good health been demanded, then two of the century’s
greatest leaders Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy may never had been
The fascination with the mental health of presidential candidates
raises one of the ugliest episodes illustrating the deep-rooted prejudice
that exists in US society. In 1972 Senator Thomas Eagleton resigned from
the Democrats ticket after revealing that he had undergone hospitalisation
and electroshock therapy for depression. This occurred just days after he
was selected as George McGovern’s running mate. Making mental health a
legitimate ‘character’ issue does nothing to break down the many
misconceptions people still have about mental illness. It merely confirms
prejudices that already exist that someone with any such illness is a ‘nutter’
and is liable to make poor decisions.
When candidates volunteer information about their personal lives, the
motivation is not just to equip the voters in making their choices. For
campaign managers such details can be another tool in the strategy to
determine the issues under debate. Imagine a scenario where a candidate is
suspected of having history of depression or being HIV positive -
illnesses with some social stigma. If an opponent/opponents had a history
of good health, then they could release their medical records to put
pressure on the other candidates to release theirs – leaving them with a
choice to either face intense scrutiny or drop out of the race. Releasing
personal information can be as much about focusing the debate on an
opponent’s weak areas, rather than connecting with the voters.
The level of candour expected for presidential candidates has been
explained as part of a post-Lewinsky desire for honesty and openness. But
this explanation seems false. The press’s questioning about this sphere
of life is not demand-led. The American people are not thinking: "We
need to know everything about a candidate in order to avoid another
impeachment crisis". If anything the Lewinsky affair simply further
blurred the distinction between public and private life, legitimising the
media intrusion into a private affairs by framing it as a public issue.
Like Starr’s persistent battle, there is a danger that the media’s
pursuit of the ‘character’ issue amounts to just another fig leaf to
peddle gossip. Instead candidates should show more reluctance in sharing
the nuggets of personal detail that could compromise their personal lives
or those of their opponents.