Wednesday, January 11, 2006

L.A. Times Story on Cheney's Health A Public Service

It may just be my imagination, but sometimes I think I can see the new managing editor, Doug Frantz's, hand in the L.A. Times daily product, which I've been looking forward to, and it may be there in the useful long story the Times did on Page 1 Tuesday, Jan. 10, on the state of Vice President Cheney's health.

The story headlined, "Details on Cheney's Illness Are Few," was necessarily somewhat speculative, since in this highly secretive, press-unfriendly Administration there are few useful details about anything. But still the story outdid the New York Times by quite a margin, even though the NYT's medical writer, Lawrence Altman, had a byline on their story.

The L.A. Times story, by Peter Wallsten and Tom Maugh, said, appropriately, that Cheney's trip to the hospital this week "sparked renewed questions about the health and fitness of the man who is first in line to succeed President Bush and, as the behind-the-scenes architect of Bush's foreign policy, has emerged as one of the most powerful vice presidents in history."

Any article about the medical condition of a high official determined, as Cheney is, to keep his exact health a mystery, is necessarily circumscribed, but Wallsten and Maugh do some cautious speculation, largely centering around Cheney's known heart problems. After all, he has had four heart attacks and numerous heart episodes.

The article never mentions the word "diabetes," but, being diabetic myself, and knowing the symptoms well, I wonder whether Cheney might not also be diabetic. After all, as is now known, diabetes is closely related to heart troubles, and 70% of all diabetics eventually die of cardiovascular problems. (In my case, I have not had a heart attack, although I did have what might have been a minor stroke in 1995).

Cheney's foot problems could well be an arch problem, which would be a frequent diabetic complication. Certainly, the prescribing of diuretics could be related to a swelling of the feet which is also a frequent diabetic complication, as could be his weight problems. More and more, the treatment of diabetes consists of a battery of blood pressure, cholesterol and other medicines designed to keep the diabetes under control to avoid or put off complications.

We know from the historic record of other presidents and vice presidents, plus foreign dignitaries, that the medical condition of high officials is often carefully concealed.

Woodrow Wilson, for example, was virtually incapacitated by a stroke at the end of his Presidency, and the dire condition of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the last year of his life was not generally known at the time, although pictures at Yalta and elsewhere showed him to be increasingly frail. Roosevelt suffered from heart disease, but the dangers of high blood pressure were so little appreciated at the time, and treatments for it so elementary and often mistaken, that Roosevelt was actually encouraged to eat steak in the final months of his life.

Whole books have been written on Abraham Lincoln's medical condition, although it remains quite mysterious. In his great biography of Lincoln, the Harvard professor, David Donald, relates a story that indicates Lincoln remained at least in some respects, in good condition at the end of his life of 56 years. Visiting federal troops in Virginia just weeks before he was assassinated, he demonstrated his rail-splitting prowess by seizing an axe, chopping away at wood very vigorously for a number of minutes and then holding the axe, steadily, with one hand out in front of him. When Lincoln left, several soldiers tried to perform the same exercise, but failed. As Lincoln lay on his death bed, observers noted that he had very strong muscles.

A poet later wrote, in commemorating Lincoln, "The hand that held the axe that split the rails in Illinois (as a young man) was (as President) on the pen that set a people free," but, of course, this was more an observation of Lincoln's strength and consistency of character than his good health.

Lord Moran, Winston Churchill's doctor, wrote a book on keeping the great British leader alive so long through a series of strokes, pneumonia and other physical ailments. Churchill became Prime Minister when he was 65 and served in that post in his 80s.

Charles de Gaulle returned to power in France at 68 and was a vigorous leader well into his late 70s. The great general seldom talked about any health problems.

Unfortunately, Cheney does not, apparently, have the physical prowess of Lincoln, and is not apt to have the longevity of Churchill, or even de Gaulle.

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