Health Class

It may have made big news on Tuesday, but Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) disclosure that he has prostate cancer isn't likely to be a major story throughout the 2004 presidential campaign.

Of course, his press conference drew live coverage on CNN, and anytime a candidate for the White House makes a big announcement, the media tune in. Americans are particularly interested in learning about the health of presidential candidates -- think Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996 and vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney in 2000. (Or even fictional candidates: On The West Wing, the president's failure to disclose during his first run for the White House that he had multiple sclerosis has been a major theme of the show.)

We worry because we know what the stresses of the presidency can do to a person. Look at George W. Bush. He's a physically fit and seemingly healthy man, but his hair isn't the same color today as when he entered the White House a little more than two years ago. As Ross Baker, a political-science professor at Rutgers University, told me, "Presidents are supposed to be indestructible, if not politically, then physically."

It's a lesson we learned all too well from Tsongas, who also had cancer. He insisted in the 1992 campaign that it was behind him, and showed off in a swimsuit to prove he was fit for the job. Sadly, he died five years later.

But Kerry's condition is different. His doctors caught it early and give him a 90 percent chance or better of being cured. It's a common illness, as Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia, noted. "If you live long enough, every man is going to have prostate cancer," he said. Dole has survived it, as has former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (though Giuliani cited it as the reason he pulled out of the Senate race in 2000).

Even though Kerry will be out of commission for a few weeks, he'll have plenty of time to show us he's back in the White House hunt. Running for president is a grueling process. If Kerry is the Democratic Party's nominee, he'll be campaigning from end to end of the country, and anyone who can survive that amount of physical exertion has to be relatively healthy.

But there's another reason that it won't be a major story in the campaign: the way Kerry has addressed it. His press conference was elegant. Kerry said he feels lucky because he's going to be cured. He gave out his Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) numbers and acknowledged that running for president gives him a "special level of accountability for my health." He even joked that doctors were also going to remove his "aloof gland."

Kerry also handled the thorniest question -- why he had recently told a Boston Globe reporter that he had no medical problems, a position repeated by his campaign manager and one of his spokeswomen -- with class. On Tuesday, Kerry said that his doctor was away when he gave the interview, the question was asked as the session was ending and he wanted to tell his family members personally rather than having them learn from the newspaper or television. "I am able to do it on my own terms," he said. There's not a person who doesn't understand that reasoning.

Still, Kerry must be careful. His decision -- and that of his staff, which was presumably under his orders -- not to be more straightforward in answering the Globe's question feeds into the perception that he's not being fully candid, something we saw when he fudged his position on supporting war with Iraq. "It reinforces a negative that Kerry has, that there's an aloofness to him and an arrogance, that he knows best," Sabato said.

At the same time, this episode presents Kerry with a unique opportunity. It humanizes him. It makes him vulnerable, but it can also make him strong. And he can hopefully use the experience as a way to inform other men about the need to get tested for prostate cancer.

There's no doubt that we'll hear more about Kerry's cancer during the campaign. It will be mentioned in stories, the same way Cheney's heart problems come up from time to time. But Kerry has shown that it doesn't have to define him or his campaign. The press obviously agreed: It wasn't a front-page story in either The Washington Post or The New York Times. Nor should it have been. After all, we had Osama bin Laden's new tape, the Columbia shuttle disaster and Alan Greenspan's comments on tax cuts to think about. This may not mean that the media are becoming more respectful of candidates' personal lives. But at least it means they can put some things in perspective.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.