Out of the West: A brave man who failed to tell the truth about his health

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WASHINGTON - Until this weekend I had always subscribed to the proposition that a president's health, within reason, was his own affair. What business of mine to know that Bill Clinton was allergic to mould spores and cat hairs (which incidentally is why Socks of current fame has to live in an outhouse), that in 1984 or thereabouts he had suffered from piles, or that his cholesterol level had dropped from 227 to a 'quite favourable' 184 milligrams per decilitre of blood?

The fuss over an unexplained visit of Mr Clinton to his doctors before Christmas also seemed a bit much. The fellow may be a mite overweight, I said to myself, but he looks hale and hearty and that's enough. Or so I thought, until last Sunday I saw a recent picture of Paul Tsongas.

Remember Mr Tsongas? Not to be confused with Michael Dukakis, he was the other Greek-American from Massachusetts, a former US senator who ran in the early Democratic primaries. He had a nice line in self-deprecating, deadpan humour and an uncomfortable but admirable talent for speaking economic home truths. 'I'm no Santa Claus,' he would say, mocking Mr Clinton as a 'pander-bear' who would say all things to please all men. Not least he was a living miracle of medicine.

In 1985, Mr Tsongas was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system which is usually fatal. But thanks to an experimental treatment by bone marrow transplant he survived. Last winter, reporters watched in wonder as he swam length after length of gruelling butterfly in a New Hampshire swimming pool. He positively rippled with fitness. His doctors had given him a clean bill of health and no questions were asked. They should have been.

The photo in the New York Times was awful. It showed a haggard, bravely smiling man who had lost his hair because of chemotherapy. Mr Tsongas' lymphoma condition, it transpires, does not seem to have been totally cured. During the 1992 campaign his doctors did not reveal he had suffered a relapse two years after the original treatment. Now he is in hospital, having contracted another form of the cancer. But it is the earlier oversight which may just have changed history. Had the truth been known before New Hampshire's primary, the single most closely watched contest of the election season and which he won, someone else instead of Mr Clinton might have taken the oath as the 42nd President yesterday.

Not that Paul Tsongas himself ever looked like going all the way. For one thing he was far too honest; his balance- the-budget message was never going to travel far beyond the north-east. And like most of us ordinary mortals - even in perfect shape - he simply did not have the stamina for the rigours of a long campaign.

But consider the circumstances of New Hampshire. Mr Clinton had been the original frontrunner but was in a terrible mess. Gennifer Flowers had just told her tale; allegations of draft-dodging filled the newspapers. The Democratic establishment had virtually written him off, and heavyweights like Lloyd Bentsen and Richard Gephardt were considering joining what was otherwise a pretty lightweight field. But Mr Tsongas was making an impact so they stayed out. Had the full medical record, including that 1987 cancer recurrence, been available, he would surely have been disqualified. Who knows what might have happened? So inept was the subsequent Bush campaign that any competent Democrat would have had a shot.

At which point the conclusion is unavoidable. Quite simply, the time has come for compulsory disclosure of the entire medical history of a candidate - certainly if he takes himself seriously enough to seek Secret Service protection and matching campaign funds from the government. In New Hampshire, people who voted for Mr Tsongas were in fact buying damaged goods. Not that he is the first American politician to have concealed illness by a long chalk. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy notoriously did so, as did Eisenhower over the gravity of his heart attack in 1956.

It may seem mean-spirited to recount the unhappy tale of Paul Tsongas amid the joyous hoopla of inauguration week. Oddly, though, his shade hangs over events here. During the campaign Mr Clinton mocked Mr Tsongas as a heartless catspaw of big business whose prescriptions would send the economy into a nosedive. The reality of power is another matter. The policies he is edging towards, at the price of more than one broken promise, sound ever more Tsongas-like. And that vindication must suffice for a brave man who told the truth about the economy but failed to do so about himself. Never again will I believe a candidate's health is his own business.