25 February 2010

Size matters

ap-charlestasnadiWell, it used to matter to leaders like Lyndon Johnson, anyway.

Here’s the now-legendary photograph of Johnson showing off the scar from his gall bladder surgery to a gaggle of reporters.

Biographers Irwin and Debi Unger argue that Johnson was merely trying to show that he was healing well. 

It didn’t come across that way.

That story leads off a paper by University of Missouri – Columbia professor Jeffrey Pasley on American presidents and media coverage of presidential health issues.

Unknown to the public and the press, Johnson's doctors had also been concerned about the possibility of more dangerous conditions, such as pancreatic cancer and a recurrence of his earlier heart troubles; true to their fears, the president actually developed a superventricular tachycardia (dangerously accelerated heartbeat) while undergoing anaesthesia. Trying to allay suspicions that Johnson was seriously ill, press secretary Bill Moyers "snowed [the White House press corps] with details," including full-color anatomical slides, and the news media duly carried daily reports of Johnson's convalescence, including such minutiae as how well the president slept on particular nights, Lady Bird planting a tree outside the hospital room window, and his viewing of "Hello, Dolly!" on television. Unfortunately, Moyers had no idea how far the president was willing to take the full disclosure policy. On October 20, [1965] Johnson was holding forth to the press as he sunned himself on the Bethesda Naval Hospital grounds.

"Apparently feeling words to be inadequate" in describing how he felt, the Baltimore Sun's Muriel Dobbin reported, "the President whipped up his blue knit sport shirt," and, as Time put it, "let the whole world inspect the ugly twelve-inch seam under his right rib cage" where the surgeons had done their work. Many newspapers and both major newsmagazines carried a photo that week of a squatting, squinting LBJ exposing his flesh for the press.

Moyers’ efforts are typical of what politicians and their staff try to do in order to dispel rumours about a politician’s health.  . Moyers pushed out bags of detail at a time when that volume of information was unheard of.  He might have been on safe ground too, if his boss hadn’t opted for the more earthy approach.

Pasley summarises a number of episodes that demonstrate just exactly how some episodes of presidential illness have been handled and mishandled. Take a minute and read the article. You won’t be disappointed.

There is a lesson in the American experience with illness and transparency, one that would be useful for any politician to heed.

Just as daylight is the best disinfectant for political corruption so too is factual information the curative for the diseases that fester in the often incestuous world of politics.  As with physical disease, moralising and ex poste facto rationalisations are seldom useful for preventing or curing a partisan pox.