Why politics aren’t for the faint of heart

Running for public office is not for the faint of heart, according to Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis, who discussed presidential succession last Thursday at a conference in the Cabral Center.

Dukakis advised the potential future politicians in the room that their health—as well as the health of their family and potential running mates—would be part of the campaign process.

“Make sure you are healthy to run for president,” said Dukakis, who served as Massachusetts’ governor for 12 years and won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. “Presidential campaigns are not for the faint of heart or mind. They are long and require a high degree of physical and mental stamina.”

The daylong conference, “Presidential Disability and Succession: Problems and Opportunities,” focused on health’s impact on political leaders’ abilities to do their jobs. The event was presented by Northeastern’s Department of Political Science and the Edward W. Brooke professorship.

Questions about Dukakis’ mental health were raised during his presidential campaign, as some suggested he had undergone psychiatric treatment. When President Ronald Reagan was asked about Dukakis during a press conference in 1988, he responded, “Listen, I’m not going to pick on an invalid.” Reagan later apologized for his remarks, which Dukakis described on Thursday as a “non-story.”

“For one week after this press conference, virtually everything in my campaign stopped as we tried to deal with this non-story,” Dukakis explained. “I dropped eight points in the national poll in a week and our momentum was slowed.”

Reagan was the focus of a presentation by Robert Gilbert, Northeastern’s Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science. In Gilbert’s remarks, he addressed how the health of the 40th president may have affected the Iran-Contra affair.

During his second term, Gilbert noted, Reagan underwent surgery to remove cancerous polyps from his colon. Following surgery, Reagan met with national security officials about the possibility of selling weapons to Iran in exchange for freeing American hostages in Lebanon.

While still in the hospital Reagan purportedly supported the plan, which flew in the face of an arms embargo imposed by the U.S. against Iran. In a subsequent investigation, Reagan pleaded ignorance to the affair.

But Gilbert noted that Reagan twice acknowledged the meeting at the hospital in separate diary entries. He argues that the stress of surgery and a cancer diagnosis caused the failure of the president’s memory and comprehension.

“It is my own conclusion based on my research that the president really did not lie when he said he couldn’t remember anything about the affair,” Gilbert said. “The major surgery and cancer diagnosis led to Ronald Reagan’s peculiar behavior during this time.”

The conference’s other speakers included vice-presidential expert and St. Louis University law professor Joel Goldstein; former White House physician Dr. Lawrence Mohr; George Washington University psychiatry professor Dr. Jerrold Post; Bipartisan Policy Center associate John Fortier; and Fordham law professor John Feerick.