They leave their mark and then they leave

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JUST a few months after the sudden death in office of a British opposition leader, the issue of political health turns up again in the columnist's surgery. President Francois Mitterrand is more or less dying before our eyes. His decline raises practical questions of election, administration and public disclosure, but also psychological matters to do with leaders' awareness of their own mortality.

The ailing statesman is regarded as a figure part inconvenient (planning becomes problematic), part deceitful (he must have known he was ill), and part dangerous: what if the weakening body hobbles the brain? In the best book on the subject, When Illness Strikes the Leader (Yale, 1993), Dr Jerrold Post and Robert Robins wrote: 'When illness strikes the leader . . . the entire political system is affected.' Their argument - that when the leader sneezes, his nation catches a cold - is illustrated with many examples, but keeps returning to the Yalta conference, where the shape of the post-war world may have been critically distorted by the terminal infirmity of President Roosevelt.

A more recent example of the crock at the top is Ronald Reagan. Elderly when elected, Reagan was, like Mitterrand, stricken with cancer in office. Although his physicians were widely believed to be lying about the severity of his condition, it is now clear that Reagan was not dying: he is still alive six years after leaving office. However, contemporary worries about the alertness of the president's mind were recently given disturbing credibility by the revelation in the memoirs of the former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke that Reagan read from cue-cards during summit meetings.

Reagan represents an intriguing study in the impact of mortal warnings on leaders. The president was a fundamentalist Christian with an interest in eschatological theology. When this advocate of an imminent and cleansing end of the world developed cancer, a lot of us became somewhat frightened. It was a central tenet of political satire and left- wing paranoia in the Eighties that the elderly and sickening president might decide to take everyone with him in some kind of global blow-up. In fact, the old man's psychological response was more subtle. Truer to his political instincts than his religious ones, Reagan turned out to be more concerned with the record he left behind, attending to his place in history by seeking reconciliation with the Soviet Union.

In the case of Mitterrand, too, we see pathos rather than danger in what may be the final days. It is relatively unlikely that, in an invalid's heroic last gesture, the French President will invade England or carpet-bomb our sheep farmers. Such fears about a dying leader are based on the assumption that the mortally sick cease to care about the future. But politicians - at least sane, democratically elected ones - are obsessive about the future, and the reputation they will leave behind them. The French President's television interview last week, ostensibly to address questions about his health, revealed a man obsessed with posterity, returning again to questions about his wartime activities at Vichy.

It so happens that, simultaneously, a pseudo-political leader - Pope John Paul II - seems to be close to death. The situation here is in many ways different. A Pope has no choice but to die in office, and, famously lacking tank divisions, his physical crisis and demise have none of the security implications supposedly resulting from the frailty of a more formal statesman. Yet the pontiff's condition offers an intriguing gloss on this problem. Apart from, perhaps, the Ayatollahs, the Pope is the only world leader with, as it were, a manifesto position on death. His church presents it as a reward, a joyous event.

Of all public illnesses, that of a religious leader is the most poignant, for he is allowed no hint of reluctance, terror or regret. Even rushing around the world for expensive and experimental treatments - on which other foreign potentates have been known to spend large proportions of their nations' gross national products - would seem, theologically, to be letting the side down. But in as much as his psychological response to his illness is discernible, the Pope seems to conform to the stereotype of the ageing statesman's end- game. In a last encyclical, a revised Catechism and a blockbuster book about to be published by Random House, he is clearly trying to fix his ideological bootprint on Catholic dogma and make its erasure by his successor as difficult as possible.

The Mitterrand experience has again led to calls for full medical disclosure by political candidates, and not just in France. Just as John Smith's death cast doubt over the damaged heart of Michael Heseltine, so Mitterrand's travails may undermine the American presidential ambitions of Bob Dole, already slavering after the Republican nomination in 1996, but also a man of 71 who has had a past bout with prostate cancer. One of Dole's likely rivals is the former defense secretary Dick Cheney, who has his own history of heart problems.

Yet our response to the health of leaders is illogical in three ways. First, as Post and Robins acknowledge in When Illness Strikes the Leader, the introduction of ECGs for political contenders might well have little effect on the course of history. A fit and bright-eyed president would still have been at a negotiating disadvantage with Stalin at Yalta.

Second, illness and accident are not consistently dispensed by fate. Lyndon Johnson, sufferer of a previous near-fatal heart attack, survived a full term under the terrible stress of Vietnam. George Bush, a dieter and jogger who looked 10 years younger than he was, turned out to be a sickly president, hospitalised with cardiac arrhythmia. Equally, Bill Clinton, a fit 47-year-old, was the subject last week of an aerial assassination attempt against which no doctor's notes could have protected him.

Finally, this electoral healthwatch is especially illogical in modern terms. The view that an individual embodies or even steers a nation is no longer widely held. If politicians are no longer father figures - and they demonstrably are not - then changes of leadership no longer represent the symbolic death of the father. What matters is the mechanics of succession. France has the parallel prime ministerial system, which guarantees at least some continuity of administration. America constitutionally acknowledges the problem through the vice-presidency and the 25th amendment, allowing for the transfer of power.

Expecting leaders to live up to promises on their health is as futile as expecting them to deliver on anything else. As the Pope might observe, the thief in the night will come, one way or another, and voters can only install so many burglar alarms.