Presidency: What's Up Doc?

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

What are we to make of a high official who repeatedly suffers from heart trouble? The fact that we do not know the answer is almost as troubling as Dick Cheney’s repeated visits to the hospital.

To most questions concerning our leaders we have stock answers, well-honed after two hundred years of experience. One of the reasons for our political system’s stability is that when most problems arise we know immediately the right questions to ask, even if we do not immediately know all the answers.

To a president who lies, we say, lying is wrong, immediately placing the problem facing us in a moral context. To a president who waffles, we say, stop waffling, which makes us feel better though it hardly solves matters; as if a political system based on compromise can afford a class of politicians who answer only to their conscience. To a president who panders, we say stop pandering, which is self-ennobling; we, you see, are a people above pandering.

But what do we say to an official who has a heart that is weak and ailing? Unless the official prevaricates, concealing their illness or its seriousness, which immediately provides us with a moral framework to shape our response, we are left virtually speechless. The range of comments we are tempted to make are no deeper than a Hallmark Get Well card.

In short, we lack a political vocabulary adequate to the challenge, leaving us confused and frustrated.

In the absence of such a vocabulary we take refuge in the simplistic questions to which our culture is prone. First, we make a fetish of getting the facts. This rushing about after facts is usually wasted effort as the facts are technical or ambiguous. Oh well. We dwell upon facts because that is what we do when we lack a clear alternative.

Second, we ask the obvious and ask it over and over and over again. In the most recent incident the obvious question of choice has been to ask if Cheney will be forced to step down. There are probably a thousand ways to ask this question. I dare say in the first eight hours following his press conference all one thousand were used.

It is not inherently a bad question. But it is a question to which no one, yet, knows the answer. And so instead of enlightened talk we get blather.

The failing is not a reflection on the intelligence of either the questioners or the respondents. Both are caught in an endlessly replayed game with no winners.

And yet of course we cannot ignore the issue of a leader’s illness, particularly a leader like Cheney who is widely perceived to be the real power behind the throne. (Old joke. “What happens if Cheney resigns or dies?” “Well, then, George W. Bush will become president.”)

Political questions usually take one of two forms. They are either moral or partisan. The moral questions help remind us of our values and reinforce our sense of justice. The partisan questions appeal to basic, perhaps base, human emotions. They allow us to demonstrate our loyalty to friends and party and our anger at the fiendish deeds of the opposition. Neither of these categories fits the current event.

What then are we to do? We must be patient. Eventually events will provide a clue as to how we should react. Either Dick Cheney will improve or he will begin a slow decline. Until evidence surfaces of either one or the other, we will mainly have to watch the unfolding drama like an audience that can neither clap nor boo. This is not the play we paid tickets for. We want a show that gives us a chance to hoot and holler. Unfortunately, this is the play at which we find ourselves. And it looks as if it’s going to have a long run.

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