Will the Press Subject Cheney to Heart Attacks?

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Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's running mate, has survived three (mild) heart attacks and one coronary bypass surgery. And while the appointment of the older and more experienced Cheney is being touted as adding "gravitas" to Bush's campaign, the presumptive veep candidate's health history adds a different note of seriousness that the Republican ticket may find difficult to dismiss.

Let's be clear: Nobody's saying the vice president has to be able to compete in a triathlon while he's in office. But he really should be able to fulfill another, less challenging job requirement: He should be able to stay alive. And while Cheney is hardly lingering on death's door — doctors assure us he's not even in death's neighborhood — the GOP's decision to present a 59-year-old with serious cardiac health issues as the best candidate to play back-up to a younger, fitter presidential candidate is raising eyebrows in the medical community.

After all, says TIME medical contributor Dr. Ian Smith, campaigning for and working as vice president presents a very real health challenge. "Cheney has a significant history of heart disease and he's heading into an extremely stressful situation," says Smith. "Stress is shown unequivocally to precipitate cardiac events, and being on this job will definitely increase Cheney's risk factors."

Meanwhile, though, the political community seems remarkably unruffled by Cheney's checkered bill of health. Assuming that the Bush camp has already taken various doctors' assessments and volumes of medical information into account, they must have concluded (incorrectly or not) that Cheney's past heart problems will not be an issue in this election. And they may well be right: It remains unclear whether the Gore ticket will launch an attack on Cheney's physical qualifications for the veep slot (a route that might be considered too tasteless even for American politics).

And the press, which might be tempted to play up the health issues because of a a desperately slow news cycle, remains curiously uninspired by Cheney's health problems. Unlike Bill Bradley's nearly imperceptible heart murmur, which was front-page news for days, Cheney's series of heart attacks may have provided the candidate with a badge of survival, an armor against frivolous speculation. If this guy weathered three heart attacks, the press corps may be musing, he's got to be tough. It's possible, of course, that the official announcement of the Bush-Cheney ticket will open the floodgates of media conjecture and herald a generally less gracious treatment of the nation's newest candidate.