Analysis: The health of our leaders

Such frankness of politicians regarding health has not always been the practice.

olmert prostate 224 88 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert prostate 224 88
(photo credit: GPO)
As US Vice President Dick Cheney publicly underwent surgeries for both atherosclerosis and heart disease, former secretary of state Colin Powell waged war against Iraq, while at the same time engaging in a private battle with prostate cancer. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner did not leave the bench when she learned she had breast cancer. And on Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert added his name to a list of high-profile political figures who have shown that perfect health is not a prerequisite for leadership. It is the sign of changing times for Israel, and the world in general, that his announcement hardly caused a murmur in the political world. Such frankness of politicians regarding health has not always been the practice. Responses to illness, especially to public divulgences, have varied. In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt contracted an illness which permanently paralyzed him from the waist down. He attempted to convince the public that he was in fact getting better, an angle which he believed was essential if he were to run for public office again. Roosevelt fitted his hips and legs with iron braces and taught himself to walk short distances with a cane. In private, he continued to use a wheelchair, but he was careful never to be seen using it in public. Roosevelt's secrecy regarding his health contributed to his reelection and his presidential term from 1933 to 1945, the longest in United States history. On Friday, October 26, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger revealed that in 2003 he had secretly undergone an operation for prostate cancer during his election period. While campaigning, he announced that the growth on his prostate was benign. Berger recovered fully and has been serving in good health as president since his covert surgery. Unlike Roosevelt and Berger, former New York City mayor Rudolf Giuliani, when confronted with prostate cancer in 2000 in the middle of his bid for the US Senate, did not attempt to conceal his illness. Instead, he dropped out of the race in order to devote his energy to treatment and recovery out of the public eye. Many other politicians throughout history have dealt with physical illnesses similarly, electing to contend privately with their maladies, such as Paul von Hindenburg, Woodrow Wilson, Vladimir Lenin and more recently, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ehud Olmert's candor with regard to his prostate cancer may, therefore, be commended. It is uncharacteristic for Israeli politicians to issue regular updates on their health. Following former prime minister Ariel Sharon's stroke in December 2005, doctors ordered bed rest pending a cardiac catheterization. Instead, Sharon's desire to appear healthy and robust led him to return to work immediately, perhaps contributing to his ultimate collapse. In post-Sharon Israel, Olmert has adopted an unprecedented openness about his health, despite the delicate international political situation and Olmert's shaky private life: He is only weeks before an international conference in Annapolis and simultaneously under intense legal scrutiny for a number of scandals. Such candidness may be expected these days, especially in a democratic society with a free press, but Olmert's announcement can still be compared to that of Chile's former dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Olmert's statement has come at a time when his every move is being scrutinized. Like Pinochet, whose attorneys claimed poor health during his trial, Olmert's disclosure may engender greater sympathy for his plight.