Ill Wind

In Politics, Image Trumps Medical Reality

Alan Hevesi's experience with prostate cancer has also proven a nonissue. Though his current post as city comptroller is admittedly lower-profile than, say, Giuliani's—whose position he is planning to run for, whatever Giuliani chooses to do—Hevesi managed a quick triumph over a remarkably similar situation. After getting diagnosed in 1996 at an early stage, much like the mayor, he took three weeks off for surgery and recuperation and even allows that his brush with cancer may have had an upside. "I might have appreciated my job a little bit more," Hevesi said in a recent interview. "It allowed me to dive into this job and the preparation for a mayoral campaign with added vigor."

Confrontations with life-threatening disease may even enhance leadership, as Tom Duane can attest. He insists learning he was HIV-positive has made him only more committed to public life. "I will never get out of the habit of making every day count and making every fight a fight I want to win as soon as possible," says Duane, who was diagnosed in 1988. "I feel like I have to do as much as I can possibly do, this day, this week." While in office, Duane's mission has involved butting heads with Giuliani over several health issues, including the mayor's 1995 effort to dismantle the city's Department of AIDS Services. Duane says that "life and death struggle" was intimately connected to his own, more personal one.

Might Giuliani's brush with his own mortality similarly inspire or change him? Duane says he's "hoping the mayor will begin to have some more compassion for people who haven't always had the luck of the draw." Perhaps he will. In a press conference about his health, the mayor seemed refreshingly human, vulnerable even. But, if history is any guide, he will have to take care when navigating the slippery slope of public sickness. No matter how hard they seem, politicians can have a tough time surviving the perception of illness—even if, medically, they're just fine.*

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