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The Daily Tar Heel

Don’t let health stop ‘the next JFK’

The President of the United States is not well. His serious medical problems require steroid treatments, narcotic pain medications and potent amphetamines.

Meanwhile, an enemy superpower stocks nuclear weapons 90 miles off the U.S. coast. The president demands that the enemy remove the missiles, bringing us to the brink of nuclear war.

This is not a scene from a James Bond film — it describes the Oval Office in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy led America through the darkest days of the Cold War.

JFK suffered from excruciating spinal instability, severe fatigue and Addison’s disease, a destruction of the adrenal glands with resulting hormone deficiencies. His illnesses required mind-altering medications that could have affected his ability to think clearly.

But JFK skillfully led the country though the Cuban missile crisis, averting nuclear war. Almost as remarkably, he managed to keep his medical problems secret throughout his career.

As the demands for President Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the ongoing campaign for the GOP nomination have shown, such secrecy is impossible with today’s voracious media. If these rules applied in 1960, JFK might not have become president, and the Cuban missile crisis may have ended differently.

Americans have a right to know whether a president has a medical condition that affects his ability to lead. But greater access to politicians’ medical information would disqualify capable leaders like JFK, invite irresponsible campaigning and tempt voters to value health over leadership abilities or policies.

Two weeks ago, the president’s doctor released a report stating that Obama has quit smoking and is in “excellent health.” It gave enough to reassure the public without including every detail.

Regular checkups allow the president’s doctor to determine if and when to apply the 25th Amendment, which cedes responsibilities to the vice president when the president is disabled. This oversight was needed for President Woodrow Wilson, who stayed in office after several strokes left him paranoid and ineffective.

But some doctors and politicians have called for more excessive measures, including a non-partisan medical committee that examines the president regularly and publishes its findings.

In addition, presidential candidates are now hounded for health records with some regrettable results. In 1972, George McGovern had to replace his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, after it was revealed that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression.

In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton initially refused to release his medical records, but gave in after the New York Times published a critical front-page story.

With this trend toward greater transparency, medical information could soon become a tool of fear. Imagine political ads warning about an opponent’s family history of Alzheimer’s disease or cancer.

Politicians’ financial records and romantic affairs are now fair game, but increasing access to medical information is a step too far. Concerns about candidates’ health may be well-founded, but think of what we all would lose if health stood in the way of the next JFK.

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