"Feel good, sore shoulder, good shape"?

Dick Cheney is trying to spin his latest cardiac event as just another day, but doctors order a defibrillator only when a patient is in danger of dying.

Published July 3, 2001 7:49PM (EDT)

Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for looking at the bright side of things. Growing up, Pollyanna was one of my favorite stories. I own more than a few pairs of rose-colored glasses. I even pop "Don't Worry, Be Happy" into the CD player now and then. In short, I'm a glass-half-full kind of girl. But the cheery spin being put on Vice President Cheney's latest health crisis has been enough to turn even the most diehard Panglossian into a jaundice-eyed cynic.

The desperately chipper party line was on unabashed display at the news conference Cheney's team of doctors held immediately after his latest major heart procedure. I'm sorry, I mean "precautionary measure." The merry medicos, who seemed to have prescribed some happy pills for themselves just before the briefing, did everything they could to make the 90 minutes Cheney was under the knife sound like a perfectly relaxing way to spend a Saturday morning. Cheney's cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, described the patient as "lying on his back ... essentially sort of snoozing." You could almost picture the V.P. swinging in a hammock, enjoying yet another lazy weekend morning nap at the cardiac ward.

I know that when I'm feeling sort of tense, there is nothing more soothing than having a couple of wires threaded through the veins leading to my heart, and a device the size of an electronic garage door opener inserted into my chest. Either that or a latte.

"The vice president's prognosis is terrific," chirped Reiner. "He felt great when it was over." So how does the V.P. describe days when he doesn't undergo heart surgery? Orgasmic?

Let's face it, you only get one of these things -- an implantable cardioverter defibrillator -- if your doctors are convinced that you have abnormal heart rhythms that could lead to sudden death. Nevertheless, Reiner assured us, "The vice president didn't appear to be particularly nervous going into the procedure. I think he was happier to do this than get some planned dental work." And this is the guy who's pretty much in charge of the country? We can only hope his policy distinctions are better than his medical ones.

Even though this was the third time since the election Cheney had been admitted to George Washington University Hospital for a major heart procedure, his doctors pooh-poohed the importance of the repeated hospitalizations. "I wouldn't put much stake in the number of admissions to the hospital," explained Reiner. "I'd rather focus on how he is able to perform." In other words, it's not the quantity of times that doctors have to open you up and tinker with your ticker that's important, it's the quality of your ability to soldier on in spite of all warnings.

The "What, me worry?" tone of the administration's response was set by the vice president himself, who, upon leaving the hospital only hours after checking in, offered the following laconic -- and iconic -- assessment of his condition as he ducked into a waiting limo: "Feel good, sore shoulder, good shape." I can't help wondering, however, if after the limo door closed he added: "Feel crummy, hurts like hell, want my mommy." And who would blame him? Certainly not the 12.2 million Americans with a history of heart trouble, who know all too well that coronary disease is the No. 1 cause of death in this country today -- well above, by the way, planned visits to the dentist.

But there would be none of that wimpy handwringing from Cheney. According to his doctors, Cheney took only Tylenol for his pain. He opened his eyes immediately after the procedure ended, asked what time it was, then ate a shrimp salad for lunch. Note the subtle message delivered by his choice of entree. He could have ordered steak -- but not our man Dick. He's macho, but not reckless.

President Bush, who interrupted his Camp David meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (he probably just called him Ju-Ju) to phone Cheney in the hospital recovery room, defended his second-in-command's refusal to let a little thing like serious heart disease cut into his prodigious workload. "I know Dick Cheney well," Bush said, "and if I were to say, 'You've got to slow down, Mr. Vice President,' he's going to say, 'Forget it,' because he's got a job to do." And he's going to do it even if it kills him, damn it! But, hey, just think how working ourselves to an early death would help Social Security. Problem solved.

According to polls, most Americans think that Cheney is doing the heavy lifting at the White House, so it's easy to understand why the administration is so desperate to spin away the negative imagery of an ashen-faced vice president once more trudging his way out of the hospital following a serious procedure.

Well, why not go all the way and try to turn Cheney's decidedly shaky health into a positive? Toward this end, I suggest that the White House fight Bush's sagging poll numbers by hitching its wagon to the soaring ratings of this summer's hot new "extreme reality" TV shows.

I can see it now: Cheney going head-to-head on "Fear Factor" against a group of fellow coronary disease sufferers to see who can best face down their gravest fears. Since cellphones can discombobulate defibrillators, how about a challenge where the vice president and his fellow pacemaker-plus wearers bravely return a full day's worth of calls on their StarTacs? Who needs people being dragged behind crazed horses when you've got life-or-death phone calls!

Or how about a special segment of "Spy TV" in which the fearless V.P. clutches his chest and pretends to keel over in the middle of a Cabinet meeting. Picture the hilarity as we watch to see who freaks out the fastest, W. or Andy Card. And which would they do first: dial 911 or desperately revive Cheney so he could lead the search for his own replacement?

When Cheney arrived for work bright and early Monday morning, roughly 48 hours after his surgery, Bush gushed that Cheney "sets a good example for Americans who may share the same condition he has, and that is to listen to your body."

Leaving aside the fact that Cheney's body seems to be screaming "Dear God, help me!" at the top of its lungs, I can't help wondering about the example he's actually setting for average American heart patients. In light of Cheney's ho-hum demeanor, how are they supposed to feel about their fears, anxieties and uncertainties? Is Cheney really making them feel "good," or is he making them feel like a bunch of inferior wimps?

According to his doctors, Cheney has significantly lowered his weight and cholesterol count. Now if he can just do the same for his level of testosterone, and the White House B.S. level, we may be on to something.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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