Posted: Sept. 25, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

For public figures like U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the times they are most likely to want privacy are the times they are least likely to get it.

Health is understood to be so personal that the government has laws to keep it that way. It does not matter, though, when the patient is someone like Castle, a Republican who has spent 25 years as a lieutenant governor, governor and congressman.

Here is one instance where the members of Congress really did pass a law that might as well not apply to them.

No one knows it better than U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat who has weathered not one, but two calamities in his public life -- two brain aneurysms and a blood clot in his lungs that nearly killed him in 1988 when he was 45, and the car crash at the limits of human tragedy that took his wife and 13-month-old daughter and put his two sons in the hospital, only weeks after he was celebrating his election to the Senate and his 30th birthday in 1972.

"There really are conflicting emotions. At the private moments, you have a public obligation. Sometimes you resent it, but you understand that the public legitimately owns part of you," Biden said Monday morning in a telephone interview from Iowa, where he is testing his presidential appeal for 2008.

What is at stake is not just private well-being but the public's trust. Both need to be addressed to survive personally and also politically.

For Castle, 67, of Wilmington, there was only sketchy information in the immediate shock and scare from his small stroke, which struck him Saturday morning while he was with his wife Jane at their beach house in Dewey Beach and caused him to be airlifted to Christiana Hospital in Stanton.

By Sunday evening, however, Castle's office was making his doctors available at a press conference and offering first-hand stories about his hospitalization and recovery. Both private and public crises seemed largely to be over.

"Your obligation to the public is to try to get as much information out as soon as possible, but the reality is, you may not know what the medical situation is, and you may be dealing with family members and staff members who are mainly concerned about your boss, and you're concerned about your boss," said Gregory B. Patterson, the former communications director for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat who has had a knee replacement, kidney stones and bronchitis while in office.

Castle remained in the hospital on Monday, a public event canceled at which he planned to push for federal legislation supporting research into child digestive illnesses, but continuing to improve.

"Rep. Castle is making excellent progress, joking around, engaging his staff about legislation on the House floor, and being checked out by his doctors, who report that he is doing extremely well. His main treatment regimen is aspirin and sleep. The doctors are hoping he will be able to be discharged in the next few days," Elizabeth B. Wenk, the congressman's deputy chief of staff, said in a statement issued late Monday afternoon.

In a state that knows its congressional delegation as Joe and Mike and Tom, Biden believes it is easier to override any circle-the-wagons instinct than it is, say, with the national press.

"The truth is, you pretty well overcome it because this is such an embracing community. People don't try to cross the line. There is respect. The national press not only wants to know, is he going to live or die, but what was your wife's first thought, what did your son say," Biden said.

There is a well-known cautionary tale in Delaware politics, nearly four decades old, about how not to handle a medical emergency involving a prominent officeholder.

Gov. Charles L. Terry Jr., a 68-year-old Democrat, was running for re-election in 1968 when he had a mild heart attack, his second, following one in 1959. His office stalled on explaining why he was hospitalized and was vague about the length of his recovery.

Terry had other problems, most notably his decision to keep the National Guard in Wilmington long after the riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. were over, and he lost the election narrowly. A newspaper editorial suggested that the dearth of news about his health also created political damage.

"The people got [dribs] and drabs of sometimes questionable information on a legitimate issue of the election year," it read. "It now can be said without fear of influencing the election that the public was subjected to nearly everything but candor."

From Biden's perspective, there are no such worries for Castle, who is running for an eighth term against Democrat Dennis Spivack and two minor-party candidates.

"It sounds like he's going to be OK. I think the public is going to be prepared. He's telling the truth. He's got good doctors. I don't see it having an impact on his race," Biden said.

Bad health is not as detrimental to candidates as bad information is. Castle has been winning elections for a long time. This one will have less to do with his opposition than with showing his fitness for office is unimpaired -- and having the voters believe it, too.