During the 1944 presidential campaign, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey knew how sick President Roosevelt was. He also knew, as did most people in the national Establishment, about FDR's long-term relationship with Lucy Mercier. He raised neither issue in the campaign because he thought it would be dishonorable to do so.

Would America of that era have been any better a place, any more democratic a country if the health and personal problems of the president had become a matter of public discussion?

Would it have been any better a country in the 1960s if the health of President Kennedy (he suffered from Addison's disease, from which he would probably have died by the end of his second term) or his many love affairs had become public knowledge?

Would it have been any better a country or any better a democracy if during the last two years of the second Reagan administration, the Democrats said publicly what most insiders already knew privately--the president was "out of it" much of the time?

I thought about these matters as I reflected on the most serious problem facing the presidency today--will President Josiah Bartlet of "The West Wing" run for re-election now that he was publicly admitted he suffers from a physical disability?

The answer to the question is obvious. If he doesn't, the most popular series on network TV (I exclude all "reality" programs and the Regis follies) will fold after the first broadcast next autumn. Count on it: Martin Sheen will continue to sit in the Oval Office.

What is Aaron Sorkin, the producer of "The West Wing" trying to say with his story of Jeb Bartlet's dilemma?

On the most obvious level, he's probably trying to say that a president who is under fire or is likely to be under fire should tell the truth instead of trying to cover up. If Nixon had admitted the truth about Watergate when the charges were first raised and apologized, would he have been able to stay in office? If Clinton had admitted the relationship with Monica Lewinsky at the beginning and asked for forgiveness, would he have avoided most of the subsequent controversy?

Most likely, Nixon would have remained president if he had apologized early. Clinton did remain in office and did continue to maintain the support of the people despite the attacks. He probably would have been re-elected if he could have run again. Al Gore would probably be president now if he had "unleashed" Clinton during the campaign. So Clinton's denials may not have made much difference, yet one senses it would have been better for him to have told the truth from the beginning.

I wonder, however, if "The West Wing" is making a more subtle case. President Bartlet is forced to divert his attention to the health question at a time when there is a major crisis in Haiti in which the occupants of the American embassy are in harm's way, and a dangerous tropical storm is sweeping up the Atlantic coast. Why is it necessary to raise a health question when the president has served ably for several years?

The answer, it would seem, is that the American president has become a "celebrity." Nothing about his personal life can remain a secret. Celebrities have no rights. By these standards, Governor Dewey's restraint in 1944 was misguided idealism. Honor doesn't matter any more.

Similarly, the public hoopla about Jenna Bush's underage drinking is a national disgrace. If she were not the president's daughter, no one would have paid any attention to her arrest, and she would not in fact have been arrested. Anyone with a sense of honor would have left this story alone. The American public does not have a need to know about it or a right to know. It does sell newspapers, however.

Does his celebrity status interfere with an American president's ability to carry out his responsibilities? "The West Wing" suggests that it does. A president should be criticized for his public policies, for his capacity to handle the responsibilities of his office, and for his decisions in critical times. His personal life and the deeds of his family should be off limits. In the phrase Senator Moynihan lifted from the Victorian era for another purpose, the personal life of the man who occupies the Oval Office should be treated with benign neglect.

I'm voting for Jeb Bartlet for re-election.

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