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In Politics, a More Upbeat Mood About Depression

Thomas Eagleton, left, with George McGovern, who dumped him as his vice presidential running mate in 1972.
Thomas Eagleton, left, with George McGovern, who dumped him as his vice presidential running mate in 1972. (1972 Photo By Associated Press)

Depression has always been with us, of course, whether in the contemplative quiet hours after midnight or in the bright light of the campaign trail. Politicians from Lincoln to Churchill functioned with extraordinary capability despite medical conditions that might today be classified as clinical depression.

The difference was that mental illness was not then a topic of public discussion. In 1972, in Eagleton's case, the admission of the illness seemed to equate it with personal weakness or a character flaw. Such perceptions could not stand the weight of scrutiny, and presidential candidate George McGovern dropped him immediately. (Eagleton, years later, said he harbored no bitterness and, had the roles been reversed, would likely have done the same thing.)

In the intervening years, politics and the art of openly managing medical infirmities changed. Lawton Chiles retired from the U.S. Senate. He later acknowledged that he was suffering from depression, but Florida voters elected him to two terms as governor after he said he was treating the condition with Prozac.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy told Rhode Island voters he suffered bipolar depression but was on medication. They returned him to office with 67 percent of the vote.

There are ads for antidepressants on television and in the glossy magazines. There are little orange prescription bottles in family medicine cabinets. So many people take antidepressants that a book titled "Prozac Nation" became a national bestseller a decade ago.

Still, familiarity with an illness does not diminish the need for medication, or minimize the severity of the disease. Mental illness can kill.

"I would not want an untreated depressive to be an airline pilot, a CIA agent or a bartender," says Boorstin.

In 2002, an advocacy group called the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance released a poll that showed that 24 percent of all Americans would not vote for a political candidate with a mood disorder. An equal percentage said they "might not vote" for such a candidate.

Sue Bergeson, president of the Chicago-based advocacy group, said yesterday that it is likely those poll numbers would be lower now, as more people learn more about the illness. People understand that not everyone with a heart condition should be the vice president of the United States, but they also acknowledge Dick Cheney seems to handle it with the right medication and treatment, she points out.

"The pressure of holding office is intense, and whether heart disease or depression, it's going to be hard" for candidates with any sort of infirmity to manage both the job and the condition, she said. "It's not always good for people with terribly disabling diseases to hold these offices, but many do a wonderful job anyway. Where would we be without Lincoln? Without Churchill? The point is, it's an individual issue."

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