The real White House heart problem

With its rote reaction to Dick Cheney's latest health woes, the Bush team squanders a chance to remind Americans what really matters.

Published March 6, 2001 10:42PM (EST)

Picture this. A colleague -- perhaps he's a good friend -- calls you midday from the hospital to say he checked himself in after having chest pains. Doctors have told him he needs emergency angioplasty, which will begin in a few minutes. The procedure is designed to clear arteries in the heart and is most often used to prevent a heart attack, which would be nearly inevitable were it not for the medical procedure. Your colleague reassures you that angioplasty is commonplace, not at all life-threatening. And you know he has come through these procedures before -- he had angioplasty a few months back and has survived four heart attacks.

Now, what would your reaction be? Any concern?

I'll tell you how I would most likely react. I would hang up the phone and be silent. I suspect I'd linger for a moment on issues of mortality -- how fragile life is, how thin the divide between sickness and health. I would think about his family, and I would think of mine.

I would not dwell on the morose, because I know the procedure is commonplace and that a quick recovery is nearly a given. I would reassure myself that he'd be back on his feet in a week or so. I would move on.

At the end of the day -- and this part is no guess -- our family grace before dinner would take on a deeper meaning. Breaking bread with family members, I would be more grateful than usual for all that I have.

And in going through these steps, I would see no reason to keep these thoughts or feelings entirely private. There would even be value in sharing them, particularly if my colleague's health was of interest or importance to others at work. Why ignore a significant event?

While this may be the way many, if not most, of us would respond, it certainly does not appear to be how the Bush White House is responding to the news that Vice President Dick Cheney underwent unplanned angioplasty on Monday. Just as they did in November, Bush aides are doing all they can to avoid any kind of introspection. Their statements are calculated to show a strong and vigorous leader -- as if expressions of vulnerability would somehow be fatal. Not to Dick Cheney, of course, but to their political health. Manly men don't complain about heart attacks. Nor, apparently, do they use them as opportunities for a thoughtful consideration of the wonders of life.

Mary Matalin, Cheney's top political advisor, stressed that the procedure was not, technically, an emergency. And Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, would only say: "The president called the vice president tonight and wished him well. During their five-minute phone call, the vice president told the president that he was feeling fine and looked forward to returning to work."

In their denials -- in their suppression of all emotion and concern -- they have created an uncanny result. Right now, among the American public, there appears to be scant sympathy for Dick Cheney and his plight. We raise our eyebrows and shake our heads rather than breathe a collective sigh of relief. His heart problems have been fodder for television comedians. It's not the heart disorders themselves that cause the black humor -- it's the Bush camp's utter denial of their importance or relevance.

Of course, the Bush team may think its public façade of invulnerability is politically necessary. But one of the things I know from my years in politics (I worked with Colorado senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart) is that if you can change someone's mind about something -- an issue, an event, their sense of the country, their sense of themselves -- you'll have their support. At his best, Hart knew how to take the time necessary to walk through tough issues and help potential supporters start to question their own assumptions. It was masterful politics. Describing the human condition and making sense of a capricious world: These are invaluable political skills, and the best politicians have used them deliberately.

That is why the Bush team's unwillingness, or inability, to address this issue thoughtfully reveals a deep failure of leadership. At the end of a day on which a friend or colleague dodged a bullet, I would feel more grateful for what I have. The same can, and should, be true for a nation.

Addicted to the rhetoric of strength and aggression, such an approach would be utterly foreign to the Bush team. From their perspective, they can only imagine that honest discussions would hurt Cheney's prospects for reelection should he ultimately ascend to the presidency in his own right. They can't somehow see that the American people know, from their own experiences, that a physical vulnerability can often be key to a fundamental strength of character.

There is eeriness in the denial. It harks back to the days when Kremlinologists would parse statements about a Soviet leader's health. Great pains would be taken to mask any weakness -- physical or political -- lest the Chinese or emerging members of the Politburo swiftly make their move. It lends credence to the notion that the White House is petrified of a Bush presidency without Cheney, the man behind the curtain who is holding so much together.

Perhaps our perceptions of both Bush and Cheney might shift if the president were to say something like this:

"I was informed this afternoon that Dick Cheney was about to undergo angioplasty. I was of course concerned. He's a dear friend, a wonderful man, a terrific husband and father, and anytime something like this happens, it causes you to think about life and death and the mysteries involved in both. I know the procedure is a very simple one, but an event like this does cause you to think a bit.

"I'm immensely grateful for the medical team at George Washington. I would like to remind all Americans -- the fathers and mothers and husbands and wives that mean so much to so many -- that it really does make sense to pay attention to what your body is saying, to take good care of yourselves. And I would encourage all of us, tonight, to take some time to reflect on what we have.

"I have every confidence that Dick will be back at work in a week or so, and every confidence that he'll keep up his rigorous schedule. But the most important thing to me, and I'm sure to the nation, is that he take care of himself and get well. And we'll keep you posted on his recovery."

Such a response would likely stop people from wondering aloud about the Bush camp's unwillingness to acknowledge the issue. It might make the jokes a bit less obvious. It might put the country in a position where we were greatly relieved -- thrilled, even -- that Cheney pulled through. It might help us see him not as a symbol of politically induced denial, but of strength and courage. It might reveal a depth of thought and emotion not yet visible in George W. Bush. And it might, if only for a day or two, make this a calmer, better and more grateful nation. That would be a nice start.

By Kevin Sweeney

Kevin J. Sweeney, an environmental consultant in Piedmont, Calif., served as press secretary to former Sen. Gary Hart.

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Dick Cheney George W. Bush