MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block. Running for president involves giving up most privacy a candidate may have had. That includes medical privacy. John McCain's history of skin cancer and Barack Obama's former smoking habit have already come up in this presidential campaign. But as NPR's Joanne Silberner reports, questions remain.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Physician and medical historian Howard Markel of the University of Michigan believes in the privacy of medical records. But not when it comes to presidential candidates.

Dr. HOWARD MARKEL (Professor, University of Michigan): The President of the United States is literally the most powerful person on the planet. And his or her health - mental health, physical health, and so on - really can affect so many things in our world.

SILBERNER: Polls show that Americans are very interested in the health of presidents, and by extension, candidates for president. But there's a long history of not learning the complete story to long after a presidency is over.

Dr. MARKEL: John F. Kennedy wasn't exactly forthcoming about his Addison's disease, nor was Eisenhower forthcoming about his history of a serious heart attack when he ran for re-election in 1956.

SILBERNER: This time around, 72-year-old Senator John McCain has been asked about his health often enough that he jokes it off. Like at this campaign stop last year.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presidential Candidate): People will judge by the vigor and enthusiasm associated with our campaign. Every campaign I've ever been in my life and I have out campaigned, all of my opponents, and I'm confident that I will and thanks for the question, you old jerk.

SILBERNER: On Memorial Day weekend last May, McCain allowed reporters a three-hour peek at his records, and were permitted to question his doctors during a 45-minute tele-conference. Journalists from about 20 organizations, including NPR, flipped through more than a thousand pages of doctors' reports, pathology findings, and surgical descriptions. They couldn't make photocopies or take pictures or tape record. Nick Muzin, a physician and a senior medical adviser to the McCain campaign said reporters got all the information they needed.

Dr. NICK MUZIN (Senior Medical Adviser): This is everything. This is every single piece of paper that has been produced in relation to Senators McCain's medical care since 2000.

SILBERNER: But that's not enough, says physician Lawrence Altman, senior medical correspondent for the New York Times.

Dr. LAWRENCE ALTMAN (Senior Medical Correspondent, New York Times): That is not an adequate amount of time for anyone to be able to read and take notes and not photocopy and analyze the information that is there.

SILBERNER: Altman is known in the media and to medical historians as the dean of presidential health reporters. He pretty much invented the genre and has interviewed many of the candidates over the last three decades. The McCain campaign though, didn't invite him in last May. One of the things Altman and others still want to know is why one melanoma removed in 2000 was interpreted differently by two groups of pathologists.

Dr. ALTMAN: The pathology report raises questions that were not answered - at least not answered fully in the news conference and not from the records.

SILBERNER: Altman's also got questions about Senator Obama's health, revealed only in a doctor's letter.

Dr. ALTMAN: Senator Obama's letter from his physician is a single-page, six-paragraph letter is a test to Mr. Obama's health, and there's no reason to believe that Mr. Obama has ill health. But the question is, why was the letter undated and why has the Obama campaign not allowed his doctor speak to reporters.

SILBERNER: A spokesperson for the Obama campaign says that the senator's health is obvious, that reporters have noted that he works out all the time. Obama has been a smoker. Earlier this year, on a WJLA TV news show, he talked about quitting.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): This was a nasty habit but it wasn't a heavy one, so I didn't get the shakes or anything like that.

SILBERNER: The letter from the physician says Obama has quit on several occasions, and is using Nicorette gum. Both campaigns told NPR not to expect more information on the presidential candidates. As for the vice presidential candidates - Senator Joseph Biden's press secretary said they'd be releasing records very, very soon. No word so far from McCain's campaign about Governor Sarah Palin. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.