WASHINGTON – Sen. Bob Graham is intent on running for the White House even though he has heart disease, and John Kerry isn't letting prostate cancer stop him from pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination.
Perhaps it's not surprising that men who've doggedly pursued a dream of being president since their youth won't let illness stand in the way now that they finally have decided to make a run for the White House. But many of the key Democratic activists gathered in Washington this week say they don't care if their nominee shares a disease that afflicts millions of other Americans, either.
"It's so common nowadays," Darryl Tattrie, chief financial officer of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said from the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting. "As long as they tell me about it and they are getting treatment, it's OK with me."
Tattrie and Moretta Bosley, chairwoman of the Kentucky party, pondered at the end of the conference's first day what disease might disqualify a candidate. Alzheimer's, Bosley said. Tattrie offered that voters would be unwilling to elect someone who is HIV-positive because of the stigma attached to the virus that causes AIDS. But most diseases are just fine by them, especially something like a heart condition or prostate cancer that millions of Americans have while enjoying active lives.
"My father-in-law is 89 and he'll die of old age before he dies of prostate cancer," Bosley said. "He still gets up early every morning and works a full day at the restaurant."
Kerry disclosed that he had cancer last week, the day before undergoing surgery to remove his prostate. Graham had surgery to replace his aortic valve on Jan. 31. He admitted on Thursday to reporters that the surgery was more serious than first thought, and that it included a double bypass and closing of a small hole between the upper chambers of his heart.
Both joked with reporters about the procedures. Kerry, described in some articles as standoffish, said doctors would remove his "aloof gland," and Graham said he was glad to have a new valve from a Holstein cow, the type on the family dairy farm.
"I'll forever have a black-and-white friend close to my heart," he said.
The candidates didn't want their announcements to get too heavy. Graham didn't once utter "heart disease" during a lengthy conference call with a handful of reporters, and Kerry rarely said the word cancer at his packed press conference.
Other candidates have run for the White House with physical afflictions. Paul Tsongas sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 after surviving cancer. He had to reassure the public that he was healthy and even ran ads that showed him swimming. He died of cancer in 1997.
Lyndon Johnson had a heart attack while serving in the Senate but went on to the presidency, and President Eisenhower had a heart attack while in the White House. Dick Cheney's history of heart attacks didn't stop President Bush from choosing him as vice president.
Dr. Roger Blumenthal, director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins University, said heart disease won't slow people down as long as they watch their blood pressure and cholesterol and have a healthy lifestyle. That applies to presidential candidates like Graham.
"It's pretty clear that if people take good care of themselves they can live a long and healthy life," he said. "Certainly his prognosis over the next 10 years is good if he gets good care."
Kerry and Graham will spend their recovery time making calls from bed. And if the Democratic National Committee members are any indication, they should get an encouraging reception.
Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser for the California Democratic Party, said he can't imagine Graham's home state voters will care about his surgery. "Most people in Florida would think he is in better health than them."