Health questions go mainstream?

HEALTH QUESTIONS GO MAINSTREAM?…. The McCain campaign originally promised to release the senator’s medical records in 2007, during the Republican primaries. Soon after, aides quietly changed their minds.

In early March, McCain sat down with “60 Minutes,” and was asked about his health. McCain said it’s “excellent” (three times), and said his campaign would be “doing the medical records thing” soon. The campaign told reporters to expect disclosure in April.

When April came, the McCain campaign, without explanation, changed its mind, and said his medical records would be available “sometime in May.”

Finally, on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, the campaign — under strict limitations — permitted hand-picked reporters to review hand-picked documents, for three hours, without the ability to photocopy anything. (The New York Times’ Lawrence Altman not only covers medicine for the paper, but is also a trained physician. In the world of medical reporters, Altman is arguably the nation’s most respected, and he covered McCain’s health during the 2000 campaign. He was excluded from the campaign’s invitation list.)

Traditional media outlets have steered clear of this issue for quite a while, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Frank Rich broach the subject in his column today, referencing “unanswered questions about McCain’s health.”

There was, however, at least one doctor-journalist among those 20 reporters in May, the CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta. At the time, Gupta told Katie Couric on CBS that the medical records were “pretty comprehensive” and wrote on his CNN blog that he was “pretty convinced there was no ‘smoking gun’ about the senator’s health.” (Physical health, that is; Gupta wrote there was hardly any information on McCain’s mental health.)

That was then. Now McCain is looking increasingly shaky, whether he’s repeating his “Miss Congeniality” joke twice in the same debate or speaking from notecards even when reciting a line for (literally) the 17th time (“The fundamentals of our economy are strong”) or repeatedly confusing proper nouns that begin with S (Sunni, Shia, Sudan, Somalia, Spain). McCain’s “dismaying temperament,” as George Will labeled it, only thickens the concerns. His kamikaze mission into Washington during the bailout crisis seemed crazed. His seething, hostile debate countenance — a replay of Al Gore’s sarcastic sighing in 2000 — didn’t make the deferential Obama look weak (as many Democrats feared) but elevated him into looking like the sole presidential grown-up.

Though CNN and MSNBC wouldn’t run a political ad with doctors questioning McCain’s medical status, Gupta revisited the issue in an interview published last Tuesday by The Huffington Post. While maintaining a pretty upbeat take on the candidate’s health, the doctor-journalist told the reporter Sam Stein that he couldn’t vouch “by any means” for the completeness of the records the campaign showed him four months ago. “The pages weren’t numbered,” Gupta said, “so I had no way of knowing what was missing.”

We’ll see if Rich’s column helps this story gain some traction.