Cheney's perception problem

There are two axioms about the health of our leaders. One axiom is that they need to be perceived as strong and sturdy.

That is why President Wilson's stroke in 1919 was originally announced as indigestion. Why President Franklin Roosevelt kept secret his physical ailments and was not photographed in a wheelchair. Why President Kennedy suppressed word of his health problems. Why President Nixon, suffering from pain in his leg, stood in torment in a motorcade with President Sadat in Cairo in 1974.

A leader's health may also be a national security matter. Recently released KGB files reveal a Soviet preoccupation with President Reagan's health. And a few years ago, the CIA did a study of heart attacks of principal decisionmakers at home and abroad.

The countervailing axiom is that it can be politically damaging to conceal a leader's health problems. Which is why, starting with President Eisenhower's heart attack in 1955, the custom became to give exhaustive briefings on leaders' ailments. Why President Johnson showed his scar from an operation to photographers. Why there were daily briefings on President Reagan's condition after he had been shot in 1981.

The Bush administration is now suffering from the political damage of being perceived as less than forthcoming about Vice President Cheney's condition. Last November the president-elect was "pleased to report" that Cheney had suffered no heart attack when, in fact, he had. Actually, Mr. Bush did not know about the heart attack until later that day, but he suffered from the impression of having withheld the information. This time around, Cheney, having experienced chest pains on Saturday evening, said on Sunday television, "I feel great." Next day, he checked into the hospital.

When credibility is damaged, it is difficult to restore. For the indefinite future, skeptical questions are likely to be a distraction from the administration's message.

The question of resignation begins to hang in the air. Cheney is almost indispensable to President Bush, but his functions do not require that he occupy elected office. He could do most of what he is doing as presidential counselor or chief of staff. Cheney may never have another twinge. But the political problem for him and the administration is that the public no longer feels sure. And that can become politically painful.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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