25 March 2007

Irrelevant Distractions

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Back when George W. Bush was running for president the first time around, there was much discussion about his self-acknowledged, hard-partying past. The accusations tossed around about Bush’s personal history focused on whether or not he lied about certain actions (e.g., whether he had used cocaine), and about whether this implied something about the kind of president he would be (arguably, yes). But the word “alcoholic” was not used and there was very little analysis that suggested this reformed drinker might lapse while in office, giving way to a temptation that would have had negative consequences for his presidency and the country.

This not-too-distant history seems relevant yet again during a week that came to be dominated by the news that Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Senator and current presidential candidate John Edwards, has incurable cancer. Actually, the news was less about Mrs. Edwards’ cancer and more that, in the face of the disease, both Senator Edwards and his wife agreed that his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination will continue. That has occasioned much comment – about her bravery, their marriage, and his devotion to her and to the job he hopes to hold. It has also lead to a lot of public discussion and comment about whether or not Mrs. Edwards’ illness would prove to be a distraction for the Senator should he become president – and whether, on its own, the fear of this distraction would (or should) be enough to undermine his campaign.

Since it is a staple of American politics today that just about everything is relevant to each candidate’s likely success or failure, the whole construct of in-office distractibility is both hard to pierce and yet also rather absurd. Consider, for instance, not just President Bush and the theoretical danger of his alcohol-infused past, but the fact that for seven years we have had a Vice President with a fairly consistent set of serious health complications, which (most recently) had him back in the hospital over a blood clot of the kind that (the Associated Press noted) kills more than 60,000 Americans a year. Cheney’s hospital visits were noted by news outlets, but there were no suggestions either that Cheney should step down from office, or that his challenging health situation was weighing on President Bush’s ability to do his job.

Senator Hillary Clinton, also running for president, also has a spouse with an illness – albeit a treatable one that appears under control: former President Bill Clinton’s heart seems to be healthy, but he did have a rather serious operation not that many years ago. Still, whatever the arguments against her, it has yet to be suggested that Bill Clinton’s health should weigh down her campaign. Senator John McCain, gunning for the Republican nomination, has had several bouts with cancer himself, and has tried to joke about it, along with his comparatively advanced age. There are plenty of reasons to feel negatively disposed to McCain, but if concerns about his health and its impact on his potential job performance were among them, he would be out of the race already.

Furthermore, to say that the presidency is a demanding job is surely an understatement. Distractions of all kinds must be the bread and butter of life in the White House, no matter how well-organized or CEO-like a president seeks to be. If this appears to argue for electing a candidate without an ill spouse, consider the general set of vulnerabilities inherent in marriage – indeed, in our species writ large. No one can predict what might happen to any individual who holds office, or whether something happens to their spouse, children, parents, or to the nation. After all, during Bush’s term, he choked on a pretzel; he may not have been in serious danger, considering the number of people watching over him, but anyone who has ever choked on anything knows the sense fear that choking rightly evokes. More to the point, something worse could have happened, but we do not generally make our voting decisions on that basis.

This is not an endorsement of Senator Edwards’ campaign; I am neutral on that, for now. But whatever the discussion about John Edwards’ weaknesses and challenges, his wife’s illness should not be counted among them. We are a fallible, fragile species, trying our best to survive in a world fraught with unpredictable dangers. Better to focus on whether Senator Edwards – or any other candidate – is prepared to face what comes, and has the right principles and policies necessary to lead us through any challenge s/he and we may face.


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