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Candidates Get Candid: Personal Matters In Public View

By Jacob Rowbottom - posted Tuesday, 16 May 2000

Recently Mayor 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 elected.


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.

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About the Author

Jacob Rowbottom is a lecturer in law at the University of Cambridge and author of Democracy Distorted (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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