Doctor: White House is spinning Cheney's condition

There's nothing "precautionary" about Monday's procedure, says a leading cardiologist.

Published March 7, 2001 1:23AM (EST)

President George W. Bush's reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's heart catheterization as a "precautionary measure" was not accurate, a leading cardiologist said Monday afternoon.

"No, you're not going to do [a heart catheterization] on a precautionary basis," said Dr. Douglas Zipes, president-elect of the American College of Cardiology. "You do it when you have information about the patient's chest pain that makes you think that it might lead to a heart attack or an unstable angina -- which is a precursor to a heart attack. The doctors then take the patient to the cath lab to prevent a subsequent heart attack." The issue involves the use of the word "precautionary"; no doctor, Zipes explained, would use that term to describe an invasive surgical procedure employed to help prevent a heart attack in a patient.

This is the second time since Nov. 22, when Cheney suffered a mild heart attack, that Bush and his staff initially downplayed to reporters the severity of Cheney's condition. On that day, then-Bush press secretary Karen Hughes characterized Cheney's trip to the hospital as a "precaution" only.

Zipes, both a distinguished professor and chief of cardiology at Indiana University School of Medicine, agreed with others who were critical at the time of the Bush campaign's obfuscation of Cheney's November attack, his fourth.

"Obviously they're very concerned about what kind of spin they put on things," Zipes said. "The important thing, of course, is that he is being cared for by good doctors."

Cheney, 60, had his first heart attack when he was just 37. In 1988, Cheney had quadruple bypass surgery. When Cheney was selected as Bush's vice presidential nominee, the Bush campaign refused to disclose a list of all the medications he was taking.

On Monday, the Bush spin operation was similarly unhelpful. The White House put out a statement saying that the catheterization "is a non-emergency precautionary procedure. An EKG obtained at the White House this afternoon was unchanged from one obtained last Thursday."

"There's nothing that's very helpful in what they said," Zipes said, hungry for more data and again taking issue with any description of a cardiac catheterization as "precautionary."

"Nobody's got heart data," Zipes said. "So everything is speculative."

The seriousness of Monday's trip to the George Washington University Medical Center is still unclear. But one hopes that the Bushies will be a little more honest and forthright than they were last time. Zipes' respect for Cheney's spin doctors does not quite equal his respect for his heart doctors. "I am concerned that they weren't forthright about what was going on," he said.

What Cheney suffered on Nov. 22 would not have been considered a heart attack a year prior, before the American Heart Association changed its classifications. Still, Dr. Alan Wasserman, president of the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, assuredly knew what he was saying when, right off the bat, he said that neither Cheney's "initial EKG nor his blood work indicated that he had a heart attack." [Emphasis added.]

Of course, it was Cheney's subsequent EKG and blood work that indicated he had had a heart attack, which Wasserman clearly knew at the time, since he referred to the fact that "a second EKG showed minor changes" -- "minor changes" as in a heart attack.

Bush, too, made this same deceptive assertion about Cheney's condition when he said that "the initial EKG showed that he had no heart attack."

And, as always, despite the blatant disdain for the American people that Bush and his misrepresentation -- and Wasserman and his misrepresentation -- would indicate, the issue was dropped soon enough and media outrage was minimal.

None of this is completely new to the world of politics, of course. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hid his polio from the world, and insisted that photographers never show his crutches or wheelchair. President John F. Kennedy's White House deceived almost everyone about his Addison's disease, and it remains to be comprehensively disclosed as to when, exactly, President Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's set in.

"If you look historically at these types of situations, the White House always does damage control," Zipes said. "The glass is always half full rather than half empty."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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