Posted by: maboulette | December 15, 2011


Texas Governor Rick Perry speaking at the Hous...

Back surgery made him blow the debates? Dr. Kent Sepkowitz on the Texas governor’s sorry explanation for his stumbles—and why we need to know more about candidates’ health.

That didn’t take long—it’s not even 2012, and we just got our first “the dog ate my rational brain” alibi from a charter member of the omnipresent Republican presidential candidates. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, still looking to regain his traction after a series of mind-numbing debate performances (oh, and an awful job as governor), has let the world and Iowa know that he “wasn’t on his game” recently (make that the last four months) because of a serious back surgery he had undergone over the summer. The surgery had by his report wiped him out. “But no excuses,” he added, making as forceful an excuse as he could. 

Governor Rick, he of the prayer rally (held—it is worth noting—mere weeks after his back surgery), is not the first politician to say that something, and not the Devil, made him do it. We have seen Congressman Wilbur Mills cavorting in the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., with his escort, the Argentine burlesque interpreter Fanne Foxe, then checking in for alcohol rehab. A few years ago, Congressman Patrick Kennedy claimed that a mixture of zolpidem (Ambien) and promethazine (Phenergan) led to his serious car crash in the middle of D.C.

Perry, though, is trying to thread a slightly different needle than the rest of the guys. He has made no mention of pain meds, famous for their dulling effect, or perhaps muscle relaxants (often prescribed for people with back ailments) like diazepam (Valium) or nonaddictive medications such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) or methocarbamol (Robaxin), which can and do often cause drowsiness or worse. That’s a bunch of sissy stuff—pills and tonics, the type of crap for wimps and losers.

No, he is letting us know he has a manly problem, the sort of situation one might expect from an outdoorsy guy who used to hunt at Niggerhead, the Texas ranch popular among a certain type. He has pain; just like a football player or a soldier, he had his spine fused, he had a nerve decompressed. These are tough-guy issues, Duke Wayne issues (and the Duke, not Reagan, seems to be the idol of this crop of wannabes), not the namby-pamby noise you get from some Ambien-addled addiction or alcohol-fueled romp, or worst of all, one of those introspective sorts of self-explorations like accepting personal responsibility for a decision that affects others (such as executing 234 Texans).

With this disclosure, Perry has introduced something actually serious into the Republican campaign, a first for him. He has raised that old, extremely prickly issue—the public’s need to know about candidates’ health and well-being. Assuming he is on the level, shouldn’t we have been told at a less-personally-convenient time that we weren’t seeing the A-plus version of the governor? We receive reports on an ongoing basis about an athlete’s sore ankle, about whether he will play this Sunday, but nothing (actually, less than nothing) about the doings of people racing to run the country and influence much of the free world.

It is true that in a world of too much information, hearing reports about candidates’ medications and surgeries might seem overwhelming, but the issue is an extremely serious one. Accuracy would be nice, too; I imagine Perry might be on medications for pain and maybe for muscle spasms and who knows what else. His picked-over “confession” admits no new information about him, about the Republican primary, or about how the public receives relevant information. As an alibi, let’s be honest, this one really blows.

Perry is not the only one with possibly important medical information kept from public consideration. During the Bush 43 years, rumors circulated that he was on antidepressants. No evidence ever emerged to support the whispering. But the side-effect profile of these agents is vast—and the underlying condition that might cause one to take them could have a potentially significant effect on job performance. And I, for one, have worried during the Obama years that the country is being led by someone who was trying, then finally succeeded, to stop a lifelong cigarette habit. Admittedly, Obama seems to have preserved his famously cool demeanor, but anyone who has ever lived with a smoker who is quitting knows this is not a mood-neutral event.

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