Why McCain and His Running Mate Demand Special Scrutiny

Ms. Unger is the author of the new paperback edition of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer and writes for the History News Service. She is an associate professor of history at Santa Clara University (nunger@scu.edu).

The supporters of presidential candidate John McCain aggressively pooh-pooh concerns about his age and health history. That which hasn't killed him, they argue, has made him stronger. But a study of past American leaders reveals that those who think McCain's long history of toughness makes him invincible had better think again.

Of the eight presidents who have died in office, four were killed by assassins. Youth and a clean bill of health remain no match for bullets. The running mates of even young and vigorous presidents should be completely qualified to take over all presidential duties in a heartbeat. But older candidates with a history of health concerns and their running mates require special scrutiny.

Admittedly, McCain does have an extensive and admirable history of triumphing over physical adversity. From the torture he endured during his years as a prisoner of war to his more recent battles against malignant melanomas, McCain has persevered. Certainly he has worked extraordinarily hard as a U.S. senator, hailed by his admirers as a maverick for his fearless, unrelenting pursuit for what he believes is right, no matter what the consequences.

But even tireless fighters are forced, sooner or later, to limit the number and intensity of their bouts. They may go down fighting but they do, ultimately, go down.

At age 72, however, despite a lengthening roster of health concerns, McCain is speeding up rather than slowing down. He is currently immersed in an exhausting campaign. If he's successful, he'll immediately begin a marathon that will last a minimum of four years.

The rigors of the campaign alone have killed men younger than McCain. Wisconsin Senator Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette was 69 when he ran for the presidency in 1924. Like McCain, he deflected concerns about his physical condition, proclaiming, despite much medical evidence to the contrary, "I was never in better fighting trim in my life."

Like McCain, La Follette sincerely believed that he had the vitality to serve two terms. His campaign literature highlighted the achievements of leaders past the age of 70, including Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay.

The effort of his failed presidential bid contributed significantly to La Follette's death the following year. Had he won, the nation would have been led by his vice-presidential candidate, Burton K. Wheeler. A Democrat from sparsely populated Montana, Wheeler was a virtual unknown, having been in the Senate less than a year when he joined La Follette's ticket.

The crushing challenges of the office (ones that presidents could not have anticipated during their campaigns) have destroyed men who began their terms at younger ages and in better health than McCain. Woodrow Wilson was first elected under the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," but events ultimately drew him, and the nation, into World War I.

Wilson served out his second term in office in name only, his health broken by his desperate, and failed, attempt to persuade the American public to support his plans for the postwar peace. The series of strokes he suffered at the age of 63 would have killed an older, less vigorous man. Instead, they left him "only" permanently incapacitated.

Like McCain, Franklin Roosevelt suffered from a pre-existing condition (polio). Pictures of Roosevelt taken during his final year of life show the effects of the accelerated aging process that come with a presidency fraught with trials -- like the one facing McCain. Roosevelt was so aged from carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders -- first, the Great Depression, then World War II -- that it's hard to believe that when he died in office of a cerebral hemorrhage he was only 63.

Even the most indomitable will cannot forestall death. The fates of La Follette, Wilson and Roosevelt serve as a reminder of the frailty of even the greatest hearts -- and the importance of highly qualified vice presidents. In view of McCain's age, health, the toll of his current strenuous campaign and the challenges ahead should he win, his fitness, as well as the fitness of his running mate to step in and lead the nation, demand special scrutiny.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/17/2008

Your insinuation here is that Sarah Palin is not fully qualified to take over and serve as POTUS "in a heartbeat" if necessary. And that notion is absurd.

Mrs. Palin has much more executive experience than Barack Obama or Joe Biden, and would obviously make a much better president than either of them. Besides, there is no such thing as "being fully qualified" for the job of POTUS, and she is a quick study.

Andrew Johnson's wife had to teach him to read, when he wasn't drinking. Harry Truman was a failed haberdasher sent to the Senate by a corrupt ring in Kansas City, and his favorite recreation was playing poker. Chester Arthur was a corrupt tax collector from a corrupt ring in NYC, who surprised everyone by going straight after Garfield was shot. It is frequently alleged Harry Truman went straight, also, when he got to Washington. Maybe Barack Obama will be another found to have gone straight after he went to Washington--but he certainly came from a corrupt milieu in Chicago. The odds are much greater Sarah Palin will make a fine president than any of these other people because she has always been a corruption fighter, and enjoys an excellent reputation.

Donald Wolberg - 10/15/2008

Excelelnt points and I think we would agree that stress is a tool as well as an enemy. Perhaps those who seek elective office do so because they relish the stress (which they call responsibility or public service). There are those that ride the stress horse to the end of the race.

I suspect you will finish your career in public service without mishap!

Maarja Krusten - 10/15/2008

Thank you for your kind words about my sis. I am sorry to hear of the loss of your partner to cancer. It’s a terrible disease which, as you point out, strikes so many families.

You make some astute points about the Admiral and about the way some people react to retirement. A person’s professional identity often is an integral part of his or her sense of self. Lose that to retirement and one can feel adrift, lost, diminished, frustrated. It’s best if people can look back and say, I did my best, the endeavor was worth it, now it is time to move on to a new phase of my life. But for many, especially those who held high positions of great power, moving on to the next phase can be a challenge.

And then there is the question of how one attained power and what one did with it. Being trained as an historian and having once worked for 14 years as a National Archives’ employee, listening to Richard Nixon’s taped conversations to decide what should be opened to the public, I’ve concluded that Presidents face stress (which can affect one’s health, of course) beyond that encountered by others who have to make difficult choices and tough decisions. They face different stresses from most of us, both in how they achieve their positions and how they operate in office. I voted for Nixon in 1972 but regret that as he himself later put it, he gave his enemies a sword.

I think in some critical ways it became much harder to be President in the second half of the 20th century. The job became different from what the Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution had envisioned. I don’t mean different in terms of the difficult issues with which Presidents always have grappled, one way or another, although those also have evolved in some areas, obviously.

Rather, I’m thinking of the increased and constant awareness of what critics and opponents are saying. The mudslinging that politicians endure (and engage in, in many cases) seems unceasing. There’s *never* a break from that nowadays, no down-time. Compared to most workplaces, it seems circumstances crippling.
Curiously, few people seem to stop and consider that.

Sometimes, I feel like asking when people write about the Presidency, what if you had to win each promotion you gain at your employing institution not through submission of an application and an interview process, but by engaging publicly with competitors for the job? What if once you got the job, you had a constant awareness of what those who sought the job but lost thought of your performance? What if all this led to name calling, mud slinging, attempts to undercut each other, dirty tricks, the urge to paint oneself as a victim, etc?

What would it do to your ability to learn lessons and accept accountability if you resorted to sending out a spokesperson every day to explain away and put a positive spin on your every action? David Gergen has said he regrets the extent to which the art of spin which he helped perfect later spun out of control. I tend to agree. Over reliance on press spokespersons and spin has made it hard to move beyond a reductionist approach to complex issues and a tendency to turn adults who grapple with difficult challenges into cartoon-like, even childish, figures. Of course, members of the public who enable or reward this play a role in as well.

In terms of how most of us act on the job, much of that seems unnatural and potentially very, very stressful. And yet it’s what the political process demands of Presidents.

Some Presidents are more introspective than others. Nixon (for whom I voted and on whose campaign I had worked as a high school senior in 1968) wrote in one of his books of Watergate that “I should have set a higher standard for the conduct of the people who participated in my campaign and administration. I should have established a moral tone that would have made such actions unthinkable. I did not. I played by the rules of politics as I found them. Not taking the higher road than my predecessors and my adversaries was my central mistake.”

In a column on October 16, 2007 (“A Small, Still Voice”), David Brooks noted last year that the process of campaigning can be “soul destroying.” He wrote of a Republican politician who had decided not to run again that her last race had been “one of the toughest in the entire country. And when I brought it up, I expected her to talk about the vicious ads that had been run against her.

Instead, she talked about the ads that she had put on the air against her opponent.

‘I was appalled by what I had to do,’ she said.”

Brooks explained of the politician that when she “spoke about the direct-mail letters that went out under her name, she did so with a look of disgust. She said that her friends kept coming to her to complain about the TV ads she was running against her opponent. Finally, her own mother told her she was ashamed of the ads.” He added, “as she spoke, I could see that she’d been fighting the war that the best politicians fight — the war within herself to preserve her own humanity.”

Brooks concluded that “Politics, as you know, is a tainted profession. Professional politicians cannot serve their country if they do not win their races, and to do that they must grapple with a vast array of forces that try to remold and destroy who they are.” He quoted from Meg Greenfield (“they construct a new public self that often does terrible damage to what remains of the genuine person”) and noted that “there are two kinds of politicians: those who become creatures of the process, and those who . . . resist and retain the capacity to be appalled by what they must do.” He found most interesting the politicians who manage to retain an “honest, inner voice.”

Brooks is not a doctor and not address the strain such a process and such inner struggles might place on an introspective person’s immune system and what it does in terms of stress levels. Of course, not every politician is introspective. As Greenfield pointed out, “some almost eagerly dehumanize themselves.” Still it’s when I read columns such as that one by Brooks, or think back on the conversations I heard Nixon having with his subordinates – largely at-will employees whom he could fire as he wished -- that I’m grateful that my 35 years and counting of public service have been in civil service positions, not ones where I had to go through a political process to attain office.

Donald Wolberg - 10/14/2008

Thank you for the comments: cancer strikes virtually all American familes and I am sorry for your loss;my children lost their Mother and I my partner to cancer last year.

Mr. Mccain's father died at age 71 I believe after a rather hard life, but so far as i know, not to cancer, but heart failure whil on a trip with his wife, Mr. McCain's Mother. From my readings, I gahter that the Admiral was a rather intense man, recognized for his heroism and leadership, and driven by challenges (perhaps a competitive personality). I have read that he had difficulty with retirement and this may have exacerbated his health difficulties. My own father did not take to retirement at all well, and his health, once remarkably robust, deteriorated within two years of his retirement.

The world has changed. Many productive people continue to work long after retirement age (whatever that means). Mr. McCain is vclearly a man of vigor, energy and is far from infirm. We live longer these days and I believe the actuarial tables now indicate Mr. McCain, if elected, would survive beyond his first term and actually would survive beyond a second term if he chose to run again.

I suspect that Mr. McCain's cancer episode is no more likely to reappear than is Mr. Biden's propensity for lung embolisms or aterial issues in his brain. Unfortuantely, as I understand it, neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden have released their current medical records. This lack of forthcoming with this data is of concern.

Maarja Krusten - 10/14/2008

As a political indendent, I hesitate to speak up in this often hyper partisan forum. But since I have some knowledge of melanoma, I thought I would take a chance.

I think the antecedent in Mr. Slough's question is implied rather than stated explicitly. The Senator's mother still is alive. I belive the poster was focusing on family history and asking at what age and of what cause the father died. So I'm guessing you may have misunderstood the question and did not intend the citation of awards to be responsive to the question of longevity.

If your point actually was that awards and accomplishments are pertinent to longevity or medical history, then permit me to offer a differing take. My twin sister received many awards for her work with the federal government. As I once did, she worked for the National Archives. As a supervisory archivist and team leader, she specialized in screening for public release classified State Department records and training government employees in how to do such access reviews. She was rated outstanding in many of her annual reviews, received multiple awards, the last a team award in October 2002. Yet she died of melanoma in December 2002 at the age of 51. (Yes, she continued to work for the government, bravely and diligently doing what she could until she died.)

Obviously, there was no correlation between her professional accomplishments and the disease that killed her.

As it happens, one of my sister's last votes, in the 2000 Republican primary, was for the Senator whose father you commented on. Of course, she had no idea she would be stricken the next year with the melanoma that killed her within 18 months of diagnosis. Neither her admirable personal attributes or professional accomplishments could shield her from early death, of course.

Donald Wolberg - 10/13/2008

Mr. McCain's father? Hmm, 4-Star Admiral, received Silver Star, Bronze Medal; served in WW II and Viet Nam--the point being?

Dennis Slough - 10/13/2008

I would add McCain had two parents. What happened to his father?

Jonathan Dresner - 10/13/2008

By way of context: I'm a lifelong Democrat, very liberal.

I would actually disagree that McCain has been completely forthcoming: his medical records since 2000 (his last presidential bid) have not been released.

However, I would agree that Obama, Biden and Palin have a duty to release their records in a reasonably timely fashion. Even if they do so in a limited way -- as McCain did -- it would go a long way to clearing the air.

Donald Wolberg - 10/13/2008

One must be mindful of who serves and why. Mr. Kennedy was a war hero as well, but had many intentionally or hidden ailments probably as serious as any of any sitting President. Had these ailments been made publically known, it is doubtful Mr. Kennedy would have stood the scrutiny of today's media. Of course, just as his ailments were hidden, so was the personal life he led, including liasion with the mistress of a noted Chicago mob leader, Mr. Giancana.

Mr. McCain has been completely forthcoming with his medical folio, alreay well known. His war injuries and cancer issues are well known and heavily used as another argument against his seeking the office of President. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has not released any of his records regarding his health. If Mr. Kennedy, young in years, had so many hidden infirmities, one might wonder if there could be something in Mr. Obama's records. Mr. Obama has himself reported that he was a heavy alcohol, pot and cocaine user when younger and, certainly these are powerful agents that can cause permanent damage to body and mind. Yet we see no attention paid to these self-destructive habits.

Mr. Biden has a well documented record of age, illness and life-threatening issues. Mr. Biden is almost as old as Mr. McCain. Mr. Biden has had two major life-threatening brain involved ailments. He has had a major life-threatening embolism in a lung. Mr. Biden maintains he is fit to serve, and yet there is no analyses of his major medical issues, nor seeming concern for his advanced age.

Ms Palin, however, is fit and healthy, and has never done drugs, had major illnesses, is a member of the robust Steel Workers union, and hunts moose. In this regard, she reminds one of another Vice Presidential candidate who was robust, energetic and also hunted moose, Teddy Roosevelt. It would seem of all the candidates, Ms. Palin is the healthiest, yougest and most vital.

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