Last week a full-page ad appeared in The New York Times with the names of 2,768 doctors who call on Sen. John McCain to issue a full, public release of his medical records.
McCain is 72 years old. Should he be elected, he would be the oldest man ever to assume the presidency. He has suffered four bouts of cancer, invasive melanoma, most recently in May of this year. Dr. Rachael Clark, professor of dermatology at the Harvard Medical School, put it this way: "I feel it is critical that people understand how quickly and fatally melanoma can recur, sometimes with decades of remission preceding a rapid decline."
The GOP has a habit of drawing its presidential candidates from the ranks of the elderly. When he took office, Ronald Reagan was the oldest ever to do so. Looking back on his final years as president, there were many indications of the Alzheimer's that finally ended his life. When Sen. Robert Dole was nominated in 1996, he was slightly older than McCain is now. Like McCain, Dole had war injuries. His prostate was removed in 1991. Unlike McCain, he treated age and health issues directly and with candor.
"You have to be honest with yourself," Dole allowed, "It's certainly important to the American people." Dole released a detailed set of medical records, considered to be the most complete for any candidate up to that time.
McCain has resisted a full public release. Nor will he allow a panel of physicians to examine his records and make their assessment public. Last spring his campaign permitted a group of reporters to look at 1,173 unnumbered pages of records but refused to allow them to make copies or even to take notes. Why not? Given the gravity of McCain's illness, he must waive confidentiality and provide Americans a full, accurate and honest assessment. When McCain is asked about his age or health, he simply dismisses the inquiry by saying, in effect, "Take it up with my mother."
It is troubling that we don't know the final pathology report and the tissue diagnoses on his melanomas, which would indicate the level of cancer he has suffered. Dr. Ronald Bronow, former chief of dermatology at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, says, "If McCain's melanoma returns, the treatment alone would be severely debilitating."
Actuarial tables show that the average man who lives until 72 can expect to live an additional 11 years and 5 months. Because of his repeated bouts with cancer, McCain is not average. Many people his age continue to perform jobs requiring high levels of professional competence. On the other hand, cognitive impairment is common in his age group, and I suspect voters who qualify for senior discounts at the movies will be among those who worry about McCain's lapses. They also may be among those who want a more honest accounting of his medical condition.
Why shouldn't we know if our next president would be medically compromised? We demand to know as much about airline pilots, physicians and military personnel who have access to nuclear weapons? Why not someone who expects to serve as commander in chief for the next eight years?
Perhaps President McCain would suffer no further degradation of energy, mental acuity or temperament. He may also escape any further bouts with cancer. But maybe not. Americans have the right to know if we are voting for John McCain or more likely voting for Sarah Palin as our next president.