Reagan Remark Spurs Dukakis Health Report
Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis on Wednesday released a detailed medical history, responding to press inquiries that have followed weeks of unsubstantiated rumors about his mental health.
The release of the report, showing that he is in good physical and mental health, was prompted by a remark by President Reagan on Wednesday morning. Asked about Dukakis, Reagan said he did not want to “pick on an invalid,” then later insisted that he had meant the remark in jest.
Dukakis’ disclosure culminated two weeks during which current and former White House officials and some people associated with the presidential campaign of Vice President George Bush urged reporters to look into rumors that Dukakis had been treated by a psychiatrist for depression after his brother died in a hit-and-run accident in 1973.
LaRouche Followers Involved
Most of the rumors have been circulated by followers of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr.
The medical report provided no revelations. Dukakis had his tonsils out in 1936, had a splinter removed from under the nail of his left index finger in 1979, has suffered several minor tendon and nerve injuries from jogging and in 1976 broke his collarbone in a footrace with a fellow governor while on a governors’ trip to Ireland.
He is “in excellent health and physical shape,” takes no medication other than an occasional hay fever pill and “has had no psychological symptoms, complaints or treatment,” said his doctor, Gerald R. Plotkin.
But, although release of the medical report provided little new information about the presidential candidate, it does provide a look at how campaign rumors, circulated by political fringe elements, can take on a life of their own in the hothouse atmosphere of a presidential campaign.
After a day consumed by dealing with the health rumors, “I think we’ll now move beyond this,” Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich said. “If this story lives at all, it will be as a question of journalistic ethics and how rumors are reported, not as a story about Michael Dukakis.”
The current phase of the Dukakis health-rumor story began Wednesday morning, when a reporter who works for a LaRouche-controlled publication, the Executive Intelligence Review, asked Reagan at a press conference what he thought of Dukakis’ refusal up to that point to give the public access to his medical records.
The President responded: “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid.”
Reagan later said he had “attempted a joke” but “it didn’t work.”
‘Unfortunate and Ugly’
His remark drew immediate criticism from advocates for the handicapped, who called it a slur. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking at a news conference in Detroit, called the remark “unfortunate and ugly language beneath the dignity of an American President.”
Bush, at a visit to a defense plant in Annapolis, Md., said he was “not going to get drawn into this mini-controversy.”
Dukakis, for his part, said at a Boston press conference early Wednesday afternoon, after Reagan had clarified his remark, that “no apology was necessary.”
“We all occasionally misspeak,” he said. And Kirk O’Donnell, a senior adviser to the Dukakis campaign, insisted that he did not think Reagan’s remark was a deliberate attempt to draw attention to the mental health rumors.
Inadvertent joke or not, Reagan’s remark did guarantee that the rumors about Dukakis, often circulated and often denied, would be reported by the national press.
Last week, after inquiries by several other media organizations, Dukakis’ staff denied that he had ever sought psychiatric counseling.
And Wednesday, Dukakis denied the rumors himself.
At least some Republicans, however, seemed to be trying to push the story further. CBS News reported Wednesday that its reporters had been told by a White House official that the rumors should be looked into. Former White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan made a similar remark during a televised interview program.
Other reporters said people affiliated with the Bush campaign here and in Washington had suggested that they look into the rumors.
Bush Campaign Denial
Bush press aide Mark Goodin denied that the vice president’s campaign had deliberately set out to steer reporters in the direction of rumors about Dukakis’ health.
“There was no concerted effort here and no one here was involved as far as I know,” he said. “The first call I got was from a reporter.”
Despite the pervasiveness of the rumors, most news organizations decided that they would be irresponsible merely to report the existence of rumors and denials of rumors in the absence of any evidence.
Tuesday, for example, editors at the Associated Press decided not to run stories about the rumors and denials unless some evidence could be turned up, said AP reporter John King, who covers Dukakis for the news service.
Reagan’s remark changed that situation, and Dukakis’ aides quickly decided to ask his doctor to release a medical report Wednesday evening. They feared that questions about the candidate’s health might otherwise spill over to a second day and overshadow a campaign trip that will bring him to Los Angeles this afternoon.
The report Plotkin released is a “summary or abstract” of Dukakis’ medical file, not the file itself, but is “all there is,” Plotkin said.
The only additional information in the original file would be Plotkin’s own “private notes,” the doctor said, adding that they contain no additional information.
Father Had Been Doctor
Plotkin became Dukakis’ doctor in 1971. Before that, Dukakis’ father, Panos, was his doctor. Although Plotkin said he could not absolutely rule out the possibility that the governor had seen another doctor without telling him, he, as Dukakis’ primary physician, would be informed of any visits to other doctors within the health plan Dukakis uses, Plotkin said.
In addition, “as his physician, I would expect he would have told me,” Plotkin said.
Rumors about Dukakis--most claiming that he had sought psychiatric help in 1973, others suggesting that he sought counseling after losing a reelection bid in 1978--have circulated for years in Massachusetts.
Although no one ever has found any evidence for them, Dukakis’ refusal until Wednesday to release detailed medical records kept alive the suspicion that perhaps he was hiding something.
“I think he believes it’s an invasion of privacy,” Plotkin said, when asked why Dukakis had balked at releasing his records.
Prior Offer to Answer Queries
In addition, campaign press secretary Dayton Duncan noted, last year the Dukakis campaign released a letter from Plotkin stating that Dukakis was in good health and offering to answer any specific questions reporters posed.
“No one called,” Plotkin said.
Release of a report by a doctor has been the manner most presidential candidates in recent years have chosen to release information. The amount of information Dukakis has now released appears to be comparable to what Bush and Reagan have done in the past.
The rumors about Dukakis’ mental health first circulated during his bitter primary campaign against Gov. Edward King in 1982, which he won. Dukakis aides accused King aides of circulating the rumors.
More recently, opponents of Dukakis’ plan to build a prison in New Braintree, Mass., circulated a rumor that the psychiatrist who was selling the state the site for the prison had once treated the governor.
Those rumors surfaced again during the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, mostly in leaflets distributed by followers of LaRouche.
Staff writers James Gerstenzang and John Balzar in Washington and Karen Tumulty in Detroit contributed to this story.