George Bush, not much accustomed to success lately, can notch up a handsome achievement this week. This past summer, Bush declared September "Prostate Cancer Awareness Month." Ostensibly, this is a negligible ceremonial matter, like the (temporary) pardon granted to two turkeys ahead of Thanksgiving, or the two consecutive days observed in October in honor of America's discoverers, Christopher Columbus (a gesture to voters of Italian descent) and Leif Ericson (a nod to voters with Scandinavian grandparents). But along comes Ehud Olmert and proves that Bush still has what it takes: The president spoke and the prime minister acted. Awareness, check-up, discovery - or to be precise, double discovery: first, locating the problem, and immediately afterward disclosing it publicly, to get a jump on the fastest of all medical experts, Prof. Rumor.
Prostate cancer is the Republicans' disease: It struck the 1996 presidential candidate, Bob Dole; secretary of state Colin Powell; and Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York, later causing him to drop out of the senate race against Hillary Clinton to focus on his treatment. Ronald Reagan's enlarged prostate was operated on during his presidency, even though it was not cancerous.
Occasionally, a distinguished Democrat makes the list, including John Kerry, Bush's rival in the last elections. But most of the famous politicians with prostate trouble are right of center, the American equivalents of Likud and Kadima members. The party affiliation is accidental, the political context is shared: Despite the calming message from both patients and doctors, politicians rush to get rid of the growth, microscopic as it may be, to distance themselves in the public's awareness from that malignant word, cancer, and especially to refute any image of weakness. The microscope worries them less than the microphone.
Compassion is good for ordinary people. Politicians require another emotion - fear of their power. The moment the weakness detectors go off, power begins to bleed. The deterrence created by the prime minister, on whose say everyone hangs, might collapse. Accounts are expedited, knives are drawn, machinations are ratcheted up. Physical and emotional health are not necessarily political health, but the opposite is true: Bodily weakness, if known to the public, quickly translates into a waning of power. Tzipi Livni, in China, was informed by Olmert's bureau almost at the last minute, and not because Olmert does not trust Chinese medicine.
What Olmert said yesterday was not, "I am sick," but precisely the opposite - "I am not sick." Ariel Sharon, wounded in the 1948 Battle of Latrun, applied to the Defense Ministry's rehabilitation department for 58 percent disability benefits only in the summer of 2000, when he did not believe in the imminence of Ehud Barak's downfall and his own rise to power. Olmert, rest assured, will go jogging in front of the cameras, alone or with his fitness partner Ofer Dekel, to demonstrate his vitality.However, it will do him no good: The recovery rate for prostate cancer may exceed 90 percent, as the experts say, but Olmert's chances of recovering politically from his accruing problems, from the criminal investigations to the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War, look to be less than 10 percent. For some reason, those who grumble about Olmert being the fourth prime minister in a row to undergo criminal investigation, as though it were the investigators' fault, fatalistically accept his being the second premier in a row whose medical problems have been exposed. No one blames the doctors.
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