Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2003 / 11 Adar I, 5763
Candidate combat: Not a hit, a punch
Some candidates are good at taking a hit -- has anyone ever been better than Bill Clinton, who, when accused of draft-dodging and womanizing in 1992, simply shrugged, lied and slogged forward all the way to the White House?
And some candidates are very bad at taking a hit -- I still maintain that Michael Dukakis' response to Bernard Shaw's question about whether he would favor the death penalty for the imaginary rapist and murderer of Dukakis' wife was a principled reply, but hardly anybody else saw it that way.
Sometimes, the punches are beyond one's control: Last Christmas Eve, Sen. John Kerry, who currently appears to be the very early consensus front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, got the news that his prostate was cancerous.
Aside from the personal impact, which must have been considerable even though prostate cancer is common and curable, Kerry and his campaign staff had to assess the political impact.
They had (mostly bad) examples to study: John F. Kennedy hid all kinds of serious maladies from the press and public both as a candidate and as president. Everyone knew that Paul Tsongas was a cancer survivor when he ran for president, but the true state of his health was not revealed during his campaign. And Bill Bradley did not disclose his three years of heart problems until he was forced to do so during his campaign.
And even though the answer to almost all political crises is the same -- don't conceal, reveal -- campaigns are notoriously reluctant to follow this path.
Two major decisions were made by the Kerry campaign that minimized the political fall-out, however: First, the campaign decided to announce Kerry's condition the day before his surgery.
This meant that the press would have "Kerry Has Cancer" headlines for only one day, until the story turned to, "Kerry Has Successful Surgery."
Secondly, Kerry aides flooded the press with information. On Tuesday, the day Kerry had a press conference to announce his own illness, press kits were emailed to reporters that included not only a statement from and biography of his doctor, but publicity about the doctor's book. ("The ultimate book ... should be in every man's home." -- Larry King)
There was also a list of "Prominent Americans Diagnosed and Treated for Prostate Cancer," "Facts About Prostate Cancer" and a timeline of Kerry's illness.
At the press conference, reporters were handed more material, including the statement from Kerry's doctor that Kerry "is as strong as an ox."
There was one hitch: Two weeks ago, a Boston Globe reporter asked Kerry if he was sick, and reportedly Kerry said no.
At the press conference, the reporter asked Kerry why he had lied, and Kerry said: first, because his doctor was away and would not have been around to provide information to reporters; and second, "because members of my family, most importantly, had not yet been told. ... I believe that members of my family deserve to learn -- not reading the newspapers but deserve to learn from me. And that's why I made that decision. I could parse the word 'sick'; I'm not going to. But I thought my family came first."
That was, to my recollection, one of the few times in political history that a candidate admitted having lied to a reporter.
The Kerry campaign did not know how the press would take this -- would reporters say Kerry's credibility had been irreparably damaged? -- but judging by the first 24-hour news cycle, Kerry has skated through unscathed.
The Boston Globe, which might have been expected to harshly criticize Kerry in its editorial, instead praised him for "dealing forthrightly with the diagnosis and impending surgery." No mention was made of lying to the Globe reporter.
Kerry is now recovering from successful surgery. And though his aides fully expect some of the other Democrats to launch a "whispering campaign" about Kerry's cancer, Kerry's staff believes it will be a non-issue.
After all, even though Kerry today is lying down in a hospital bed, in another sense he has taken a punch and is still standing.
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