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Monday, March 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kerry in fine shape (except for his ailments)

By Jim VandeHei
The Washington Post

Sen. John Kerry, lower right, snowboards ahead of his instructor, Jim Grossman, at Sun Valley, Idaho, last week.
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ST. LOUIS — Sen. John Kerry, by most measures an unusually fit 60-year-old, has spent key parts of his presidential campaign battling ailments ranging from prostate cancer to a stubborn cough and cold.

Kerry frequently complains to reporters of a stiff right shoulder or allergies that leave his voice raspy and throat sore. For much of this year, Kerry has curtailed speaking and sipped lemon tea to nurse a voice strained by hacking and yakking. In mid-February, he described the ailment to reporters as a "chest thing" and griped about its persistence.

On Wednesday, Kerry will undergo elective shoulder surgery for a slight tear, marking the second time the Democratic candidate has missed time on the hustings for an operation. Shortly after announcing his campaign in 2003, Kerry had his prostate removed to cure early-stage cancer.

In some instances, the aches and illness have come at inopportune times, slowing his campaign at critical junctures. But mostly, they have simply frustrated an athletic candidate who plays hockey and bicycles, snowboards and windsurfs. His biggest complaint: Aches and pains are precluding more frequent workouts.

"Kerry is the most athletic, most vigorous guy in the race," said David Wade, his spokesman. "He bounced back from surgery last year way faster than most, he windsurfs, mountain climbs, skis and snowboards; in great shape — not exactly the kind of guy whose health is a question mark."

Shortly after announcing Wednesday's surgery, a local TV reporter's first question to Kerry was whether the candidate had a "Cheney problem," a reference to health questions that have dogged the vice president as a result of his heart condition.

Kerry brushed off the inquiry with a simple "no," and declared "I'm healthy." Indeed, based on Kerry's partial medical records, which were released last year, the Massachusetts senator appears in fine and fit condition.

Yesterday morning at Chris's Pancakes and Dining, three different patrons commented about how Kerry looks better in person than he does on television. Yet one man commented, "You need a little flesh on." Kerry agreed and said, "I know, I'm working on it."

Today, Kerry's general physician, Dr. Gerald Doyle, will release an updated summary of the candidate's health record. And Dr. Bertram Zarins, from Massachusetts General, will brief reporters on Kerry's upcoming surgery.

Because Americans generally have chosen presidents whom they view as strong — from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, the candidates routinely portray themselves as vibrant and virile.

In the 1992 campaign, Paul Tsongas, who suffered from lymphoma, showed himself swimming in a television commercial to prove his good health. In 1996, Bob Dole, who had been treated for prostate cancer and had minimal use of his right arm from a World War II injury, frequently battled to prove himself fit to unseat a much-younger Bill Clinton.
And Bill Bradley did not disclose his three years of heart problems until he was forced to do so during the last presidential campaign.

In earlier years, politicians and presidents hid their ailments, underscoring how essential the image of strength is to leadership and how open, by historical standards, Kerry and other modern politicians are today about their health.

Grover Cleveland underwent two operations for cancer of the jaw in 1889, but told America he had a tooth removed. Most famously, Franklin Roosevelt hid his disability from Americans in an era when the president's every move was not captured on camera. Now, candidates publicize hospital visits and quickly release medical records to the public.

This year's election features two men who revel in their athleticism. Bush runs a subseven-minute mile and bench presses more than 200 pounds. For relaxation, the president chops wood and clears brush at his ranch.

Bush did have four noncancerous skin lesions removed in December 2001 and recently stopped running as result of a knee injury.

Not to be outdone, Kerry has played hockey with the Boston Bruins and, last week, was photographed snowboarding and hiking up snow-covered mountains. At airports, he often tosses a football or baseball with a top aide before the cameras. He sometimes brings a bike along for working out.

But, several aides said, Kerry's bout with prostate cancer was to blame for the candidate's slow and uneven start to the presidential campaign. After surgery in February 2003, Kerry missed several weeks of campaigning and was sore and tired for many more.

Kerry lied to the Boston Globe when asked if he was sick. He later explained that he wanted to tell his family first. At a news conference to announce his surgery, Kerry's staff distributed a quote from the candidate's doctor describing him as "strong as an ox."

This week's surgery comes at the beginning of a fast and furious general-election campaign — and only days after Kerry vacationed in Idaho. Some Democrats complained last week that Kerry's absence from the trail was ill-advised.

Wade said Kerry wants to get it over early so it doesn't bother him later in the campaign.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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