All week White House officials orchestrated a media blitz that was calculated to appear upbeat. In an impromptu press room at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, doctors reported that President Ronald Reagan was making a “spectacular” recovery from the two-hour-and-53-minute operation which had removed two feet of his large intestine and, with it, a two-inch tumor that had irrevocably altered the character of his second term. Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes asserted that Reagan was “champing at the bit” to get back to work and had asked jauntily, “Tennis, anyone?” Vice-President George Bush, swiftly resuming his usual low-profile role after his eight-hour brush with presidential power while the President was under anesthetic, was at such pains to defuse any hints of crisis that he declared it was as if the President had been on vacation.
Visual images were just as carefully staged for each night’s newscast: a White House photo handpicked by Nancy Reagan showed the President recuperating in his bathrobe and slippers, his head thrown back in laughter at a joke. Before he had even consumed his first solid meal, Reagan appeared at his hospital window to wave for the benefit of television network cameramen who had camped on the pavement outside. As he left the hospital Saturday, after making his weekly radio broadcast—a tribute to Nancy Reagan—White House staff gathered in a festive welcomehome ceremony on the south lawn before the assembled press corps.
But as the President prepared for a meeting this week with Chinese President Li Xiannian, there were indications that the damage control effort had scored only limited success. In creating a breezy, business-as-usual atmosphere, Reagan’s aides demonstrated that there was no panic or vacuum of power in the wake of Dr. Steven Rosenberg’s shattering announcement last Monday: “The President has cancer. ” But despite doctors’ optimistic prognoses for his recovery, Rosenberg’s simple declarative sentence cast an irreversible shadow over the remaining SV2 years of Reagan’s presidency. More importantly, it raised questions about the ability of the country’s oldest President to carry out his mandate at 74—above all, in negotiating
the key arms control agreement with the Soviet Union that would stand as his legacy. Said an editorial in the daily newspaper The Guardian in London: “The health of the President is now an issue. It will remain an issue through the last 3V2 years of his term.”
The shock over the malignant tumor that surgeons found at the juncture of Reagan’s small and large intestines produced an initial heated debate about the adequacy of his medical advice. Independent cancer specialists criticized the White House medical team for not ordering a colonoscopy—a bowel examination using a long fibre-optic instrument which revealed the malignant growth—as early as May, 1984, when the President’s first rectal polyp was discovered. Dr. Walter Karney, the naval internist who co-ordinated the President’s physical examinations, broke a White House order imposing silence on Reagan’s physicians to defend his team.
Karney asserted that they had urged Reagan to have a colonoscopy last March, when a second intestinal polyp was discovered.
But it became increasingly apparent that all parties had overestimated Reagan’s health. In fact, what finally may have prompted him to schedule the examination was a telephone call from his older brother Neil, 76, who, in a startling medical coincidence, had undergone surgery for exactly the same kind of tumor in the same area on his bowel only 10 days earlier.
But the White House gag order and its refusal to release the pathologists’ report fuelled speculation that Reagan’s cancer was more serious than first reports had disclosed. In initial interviews, confirmed by a colleague at the National Cancer Institute, Rosenberg classified the tumor as a Dukes B-2 type—a lesion that had actually invaded deeper into the muscles of the bowel
wall than the less intrusive Dukes B-l type that the White House announced it was. That would explain cancer specialists’ puzzlement at why Rosenberg had given Reagan only a greater than 50per-cent survival rate over the next five years, instead of the 60 to 80 per cent survival rate normally associated with Dukes B-l tumors.
The controversy produced protests from a Washington-based committee for Freedom of the Press which argued that the public had a right to know the gravity of Reagan’s condition. But others agreed with Speakes that the media had gone overboard in its detailed coverage of Reagan’s bowel problem. Said Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen: “In no other country does the leader’s large intestine fall into the public domain.”
Indeed, public perceptions of Reagan’s health have become a key factor in measuring his capacity to govern. As exhaustive medical analyses gave way to diagnoses of his political prospects, pundits differed on how the President’s cancer would affect his second-term agenda. Some predicted that the outpouring of public sympathy that deluged the White House with get-well wishes would help him persuade a deadlocked Congress I to adopt his two key ^ legislative priorities * —budget cuts to reS duce the deficit and § tax reform. A similar £ flood of goodwill after I the attempt on Reagan’s life in March, 1981, won him support for a series of unpopular tax measures in the first year of his first term. Said A. James Reichley, a senior fellow in governmental studies at the Washingtonbased Brookings Institute: “Sympathy makes political leaders hesitant to attack the President. It oils the works a bit.”
But as attempts at a budget compromise shattered acrimoniously in a congressional conference last week, other
analysts argued that, unlike 1981, Reagan is now a final-term President confronting a Congress that includes 22 Republican senators who will be seeking re-election in congressional elections next year. Most are still smarting from Reagan’s public abandonment of them two weeks ago when he abruptly reversed his opposition to Social Security cost-of-living adjustment increases and sided with Democrats in the House of Representatives. Said Richard Whalen, a Republican political consultant: “Sympathy is sympathy and economics is economics. The two don’t mix. Most congressmen would kill their grandmother if it meant getting re-elected.” Indeed, most analysts predict that Reagan’s illness will compound the lame-duck nature of his second term. Whalen argued that the cancer scare has accelerated the reassessment of the President’s performance in his final four-year term—and found him wanting. Many Republicans charge that he has squandered his narrow “window of opportunity” to achieve reforms before attention turns to the next election. Reagan’s chances of retaining political support are also jeopardized by the nation’s sluggish economic performance. The U.S. commerce department reported last week that, after a stagnant first quarter, gross national production grew by only 1.7 per cent in the second quarter
of this year—sharply less than the 3.1 per cent estimated only last month and an ill omen for the 8.4 million unemployed Americans. Said Whalen: “If it goes on this way, by the beginning of the fall the President will be largely a ceremonial bystander.”
White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan tried to fend off that prospect last week as he visited the President’s Bethesda hospital suite for consultations and minimized the ceremonial pinch-hitting of the vicepresident. In fact, the crisis served to further consolidate the status of the White House’s two new leading power brokers—Regan and first lady Nancy Reagan—who jointly controlled all access to the President in the week following his surgery.
In its demonstration of business as usual, the White House announced that Reagan had offered to meet new Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in September. But analysts said that the Kremlin’s new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, may regard Reagan’s health as yet another impediment to arms control negotiations. “Reagan’s health has to deteriorate noticeably before it will seriously affect negotiations,” said John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy at Brookings. “But the issue is not going to go away. They will be watching how he performs.”
Reagan’s recovery rate could also influence American public morale. Should he need chemotherapy, which could alter his appearance, it could have a devastating impact on a nation accustomed to images of a vigorous leader. Said Reichley: “Reagan has done a great deal to restore national confidence. If he is impaired, it tends to undermine that.” For the immediate future, the President’s recuperation should not change the day-to-day workings of an administration designed around his detached chairman-of-the-board style. But in an effort to show that Reagan is still vigorous and in charge, some doctors caution that his advisers may have painted a recovery scenario so optimistic that even a healthy 74-year-old could not live up to it without overtaxing himself. Certainly, the world’s eyes will be on the President’s ranch vacation next month to see if he rides his horse or chops wood—the powerful images of what advisers term his “symbolic presidency.” Indeed, there will be increasing scrutiny of a presidency that has been forever changed by the simple fact that Reagan can no longer pretend to be a totally healthy man. Still, considering that he has consistently defied political bookmakers throughout his career, many observers last week were giving Ronald Reagan a better than even chance of beating his medical odds. O
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