One dispiriting aspect of this endless presidential campaign has been the reluctance of the nominees of the major parties to provide anything resembling adequate information about their health and their medical histories.
Being president of the United States is a physically demanding and stressful job (in part because we seem to expect presidents to be a combination of Superman and Santa Claus, but that's an issue for another day). In recent years most candidates have justifiably provided much more complete information than had been customary in the past. This year's reversion to keeping voters in the dark is regrettable.
John McCain, 72, whose age and history as a survivor both of torture and skin cancer raise justifiable concerns, has been most forthcoming, but in a curiously limited way. He allowed a small pool of reporters to review 1,200 pages of medical records for three hours — but not to make copies or take notes that would have permitted them to ask other medical experts what some of the information might imply. He has survived eight years since his last melanoma was removed, but some medical experts don't breathe easily about a recurrence for 10 years.
Joe Biden, 65, had emergency surgery in 1988 for an aneurysm in an artery in his brain and elective surgery for a second one. He released 49 pages of medical records last week, declaring he was in good health, but the documents did not show whether he had had recent neurological tests.
Barack Obama, 47, released a single-page undated letter from his doctor stating he was in excellent health. Later his campaign released the results of standard lab tests, the most recent in January 2007. They were normal, and there is little reason to doubt his health status, but he was a smoker for 20 years who has admittedly had a hard time quitting.
Sarah Palin, 44, has released no medical information. Just observing her spirited campaigning raises no particular doubts in the average layperson's mind about her physical health and suggests that her health is excellent. In the absence of more definitive information, however, we just don't know.
Americans entrust presidents, and even vice presidents, with enormous power over our lives, arguably more power than any single individual should wield in a free society. Both jobs exact a crushing physical and emotional toll. We expect them to be able to weigh information dispassionately and make decisions of great consequence. It is not too much to expect them to be more forthcoming than any of these candidates have been about their medical conditions and health, if only to assure us that no medical problems have been downplayed or hidden, as has happened in the past.
We're not quite ready, as some are, to ask Congress to pass a law requiring presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose their entire medical history and make it available to an independent panel of physicians for evaluation. If these four candidates do not disclose a great deal more about their health, however, such a law might look more attractive. Before turning the reins of the federal government over to an aspirant to political power, we should be in a position to judge whether he or she can hold them firmly.
• Editor’s note: Letters to the editor related to the Nov. 4 elections will not be published after Oct. 31. Deadline for submitting election letters is Oct. 29 and no new issues will be raised after Oct. 28.