A Heart-to-Heart About Dick Cheney

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Back to work: Vice President Dick Cheney in the Oval Office

From time to time, I have felt Dick Cheney's pain.

We are both about the same age — I am some months older — and we both had our first heart attacks in our mid-thirties. Over the years, we have been similarly inconvenienced by heart attacks. The elephant has stepped on his chest four times, and on mine, twice. He has had one multiple bypass operation, I have had two of them. We have both had angioplasties, with stents. A couple of years ago, I drew ahead of Cheney in the fancy therapy category by having DNA injected into my myocardium in order to induce the growth of new vessels — angiogenesis, a still experimental but highly promising technique that has, in my case, worked miraculously well.

The Bush-Cheney situation produces role-reversal jokes — about Bush being a heartbeat away from the presidency, and so on. Having lived through medical experiences similar to the vice president's, I have a wary and complex attitude toward the fact that the most important man in Washington, aside from Bush, has been playing peekaboo for so long with his own mortality. When I contemplate Cheney's situation, I see my own (minus power, limousines and Secret Service).

My approach to life for many years has been ascetic, robust and provisional. Every mortal lives with the fact of his own death. Most people are not disabled by the thought; they are able to forget about it, on most days. We pretend we are immortal. And of course, we are... for the moment. Proceed as if, until notified otherwise. People with a history of heart attacks, like me and Cheney, do, however, listen to the engine more carefully than most drivers. We cock an ear inward. We experience, on some days, an unusual sense of vulnerability.

After a heart attack, you feel as if someone has broken into the house in the middle of the night. Ever after, you know there is a killer walking around in the dark basement. If you hear a noise, you imagine the killer mounting the stairs with a knife in his hands. You finger the tiny glass cylinder of nitro as if it were kryptonite. You rub the middle of your chest, and feel the bumpy scars where the bone was wired back together.

A heart attack leaves you feeling that your oldest friend has committed treachery. The body, the now corrupted companion of your youth, has lost its mind and violently assaulted you.

Is it the heart attacks, or the bypass operations afterward that, for some reason, often leave the patient prone to depression? It would seem an odd emotional logic to become depressed after having been given new piping and a new lease on life. Some lore has it that bypass people are a little crazier than most, that the "cabbage" (coronary artery bypass) activates a wild hair. I am beginning to think there's truth in the theory that bypass surgery savages the memory (something to do with oxygen deprivation while on the heart-lung machine). My memory was once photographic. Now I have to work harder sometimes to fetch a name. The other day, for some reason, I wanted to retrieve the name of... you know, the "Gonzo journalist" of "Fear and Loathing" fame... Rolling Stone... you know... but the once perfectly familiar words skittered off into the dark, and it was half a day before I caught sight of them as they dodged around another corner of the mind: Hunter Thompson!

I have seen no evidence of Cheney either acting screwy or forgetting things. He seems the perfect Duke of Kent, who was King Lear's bluff, loyal, sane liege man and exec. I am another story. I certainly have had bouts of the bypass depression.

Living with heart disease over the long haul usually produces a disciplined and grumpily abstemious character who learns, in time, a sense of quiet gratitude. I guess I'm not terribly worried about Cheney. Heart disease is what keeps us in shape.