A Style section story on Florida gubernatorial candidate Lawton Chiles Monday misstated the title of his Republican opponent in the 1970 Senate campaign, Rep. William Cramer. It also misidentified the location of the Collins Center, a public policy institute at Florida State University. (Published 7/5/90)
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. -- When Lawton Chiles decided to leave the Senate in 1988, his life had been reduced to the blues and the blacks. Little blue schedule cards filled his days with increasingly trivial endeavors, and his moods grew so black that life in Washington, gridlocked by too much money and too few ideals, became unbearable.
Chiles said he was "burned out," and decided to give up his Senate career, making a break with politics that looked final. It was an extraordinary confession for such a guarded politician, and an extraordinary withdrawal for a popular senator still in his fifties.
But then, two years later, Chiles essentially said: Never mind -- that was then, but this is now. Sensing a pallid field of Democratic contenders for governor of Florida, and a vulnerable Republican incumbent, Chiles jumped into the race.
His entry turned the campaign upside down. First, he became the front-runner, and second, his change of heart became the chief issue in the race. Behind it, in the pointed code of the modern political campaign, lay the potent question of Chiles's mental health: those debilitating blacks he suffered, and then the remedy he sought -- Prozac, the celebrated new antidepressant featured earlier this year on the cover of Newsweek.
Chiles stopped taking the drug several months ago, after his doctor pronounced the treatment successful. But he has been dealing with the issue from the outset of his campaign.
On April 12, the day Chiles announced for governor, St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan heard a rumor that he had been treated for depression at a clinic in Arizona. The tip was helpfully supplied to Morgan, and the rest of Florida's political press corps, by sources friendly to Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.
When Morgan called Chiles for comment that day, he seemed not just ready, but eager, with a response worthy of Jay Leno.
"No," he drawled, the rumormongers hadn't gotten it quite right about his trip to Arizona. And they were wrong about the treatment too.
"It wasn't Arizona, it was Nevada. It wasn't 1989, it was 1987," he said. "It wasn't depression, it was a sex-change operation."
Morgan appreciated a good laugh -- although she did not print that response in the newspaper, much to the relief of the Chiles campaign. There have been few occasions for levity since. With few conventional political issues to compete, Chiles is still forced to deal daily, at least indirectly, with the issue of his depression and treatment, and his opponents seize every opportunity to demonstrate their robust good health.
Modern medicine recognizes depression as a treatable disease, rooted often in a chemical imbalance. An estimated 15 million Americans suffer from depression. But popular wisdom hasn't caught up. Many modern voters still seem to regard depression as a personal failing, a sign of imperfect character. Chiles, in essence, is running now against demons -- his own, and those that lurk in the minds of Floridians.
To Washington and Back
Before Chiles jumped into the race, the campaign for governor was as stultifying as a Florida summer. Six-term Rep. Bill Nelson, a lackluster Democrat so uninspiring a Florida magazine nicknamed him "The Empty Suit," looked to be the inevitable challenger to the incumbent Republican, Martinez, who seemed to suffer from terminal foot-in-mouth disease. Insiders in both parties groaned that coping with the summer and the political boredom was more than they could take.
Chiles's entrance proved a tonic. The popular former senator soared to the top of the polls, displacing both Martinez and Nelson, and there he remains -- at least a dozen points ahead in matchups with either of them -- nearly three months later. But it is early yet in Florida's political season -- the Democratic primary is not until Sept. 4 -- and Chiles's lead is considered fragile. And, with redistricting only two years away, Florida -- along with Texas and California -- is considered a key battleground by both parties.
Naturally, Chiles's opponents have tried to exploit the revelations about the new front-runner's depression and treatment, implicitly questioning his fitness for office. Their approach to this sensitive issue has been at times subliminal. Martinez, for instance, jogged for the cameras. And Nelson, who rode the space shuttle into orbit in late 1985, released his NASA medical report, certifying him fit as an astronaut.
"I can assure you I'm not burned out," Nelson says over and over on the campaign trail. No one misses the reference.
"As long as Chiles looks good physically, he's okay," said Steve Ross, a longtime observer of Florida's Democratic political scene. "The first time he looks bad, or if he ever has to leave the campaign for a few days, then there will be suspicions."
"People say everybody is taking Prozac, but it's a little unusual for a candidate for major office," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, Martinez's campaign manager. "Is it possible to hurt him with it? My answer is 'yes.' "
Chiles can, however, draw on two decades of good will among Florida voters -- a popular loyalty he first earned handshake by handshake. Back in 1970, when he announced for the Senate seat held by William Cramer, Florida's senior Republican in Congress, his name barely registered 1 percent in the polls. So Chiles trudged 1,000 miles from the Florida Panhandle to the Florida Keys, winning the moniker "Walkin' Lawton" along the way and demonstrating that even an unknown country lawyer could knock off the big-moneyed favorite. He became a Florida legend.
Soft-spoken and earnest, Chiles was Florida's version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The role seemed to fit Walkin' Lawton. He gave off the image of a small-towner, but in the corridors of power, he thrived. By the end of his third term, Chiles had ascended to chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
But by then, the whole reason for having gone to Washington in the first place had vanished. The political system of the late 1980s seemed to have been devised to avoid problems rather than face them. To Chiles, the Senate seemed captive to the campaign money chase and TV sound bites. His own life seemed enslaved to a 3-by-5 card that listed his daily appointments minute by minute.
Chiles remembers going to staff meetings in 1987 where he pulled out his schedule card and pleaded for relief.
"I said, 'Look, let's be sporting about this. I can't find anything on here that I want to do,' " he said.
He spent much of that year tied up in budget deliberations, a process he later compared to churning butter -- the harder you churn, the harder it gets.
As the year wore on, his mood grew bleaker and bleaker. In late fall, one friend recalls, Chiles attended a party for Florida supporters. But instead of mingling, he hugged the wall and stared moodily out the window.
By November, Chiles's life was spinning rapidly out of control. His wife, Rhea, had escaped into alcohol and Chiles himself dropped into moods of despair so severe he called them "the blacks." He went days without sleep. His stomach was sour. He couldn't keep food down. After a few nights of insomnia, he'd begin lying awake worrying about whether he was going to get to sleep. When the episodes of insomnia began, everything else would spiral down from there.
Outwardly, Chiles revealed nothing to his staff or Senate colleagues. He worked harder than ever, dismissing the moods as exasperation over the budget deliberations and worries about his upcoming reelection campaign. "They all knew I was frustrated," he said. "You think, maybe they're as bad off as I am. Who am I to cry to them?"
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), ranking Republican on the budget committee and a friend, says he knew something was eating Chiles. They all were frustrated. But Chiles's announcement that he was leaving the Senate when his term expired in 1988 came as a complete surprise to him.
"In retrospect, toward the end, he would come to meetings a little more at the last minute and then say he would have to leave very, very quickly," Domenici said. "I thought he had too much to do. But it could very well have been some kind of malaise setting in."
At the time, it seemed logical to Chiles that Washington was the cause of his gloom. As if to reinforce his suspicion, five other senators announced their retirements that year -- two of them, like Chiles, declaring they were disillusioned with the system. Sen. Daniel J. Evans, a highly regarded Republican from Washington state, quit for largely the same reasons as Chiles. "We shared each other's frustration with the system," Evans said. "It was always a matter of putting things off and hiding and no one being willing to stand up and speak out on the problems as they really existed."
But if Washington seemed to be the disease, Tallahassee wasn't the cure. Back home, Chiles spent much of 1989 rebuilding the parts of his life that had suffered during 18 years in Washington. The retired senator spent more time with his family; Washington had robbed him of that. The Chileses bought a pleasant, rambling house with a white picket fence, and remodeled it. Rhea had sought treatment for alcoholism and was recovering successfully.
Chiles also took a job as director of the Collins Center, a public policy institute affiliated with the University of Florida, and oversaw a project to assist young mothers in a neighboring county that has the highest infant mortality rate in the state. He found a satisfaction there in direct dealings with people on the issues that had first drawn him into politics.
Still, something was amiss.
The insomnia returned, accompanied again by a loss of appetite. By his nature Chiles was a cheerful person. But to friends around Tallahassee, he seemed sad.
"He was confused about it," recalls an old family friend. "Chiles never gets sick. Here's a guy who walked 1,000 miles to get elected to the Senate. He was accustomed to getting up at 4 in the morning. I said to him one day, 'You don't seem happy,' and he said, 'Nope.' "
Last December, Chiles began searching for a different kind of solution to his troubles. He explored the possibility of entering a clinic in Arizona, but decided against it, instead consulting his family physician in Tallahassee, who diagnosed a clinical depression. The doctor put Chiles on a low dose of Prozac. It is the most widely prescribed antidepressant in the country, hailed as a wonder drug because it has so few side effects.
Within a month, the black moods disappeared. And as day follows night, Chiles began to think about politics again.
'But the Good News Is ...'
The retired senator spends much of his time on the campaign trail talking about leadership, and he often compares the courageous foreign leaders who last fall changed the face of Eastern Europe with the politics-as-usual gang in Washington. On a return visit to Washington a few months ago, Chiles said he found the same conversations he was hearing in 1988 still going on in the Senate cloakroom and in the Senate dining room and on the Senate floor.
But not everyone wants to talk about airy notions like leadership. They want to talk about Chiles. Since the disclosure of his depression and treatment, Chiles has had little choice but to oblige the flow of reporters who have streamed into his living room to ask about his black moods and insomnia, and to probe more deeply for insight into the mysteries of the ailment.
Chiles describes his depression as if he were talking about someone else.
"You wake up and you're not sleeping," he said. "Small things that bothered you before become very, very large. You begin to wonder what you've done wrong. It becomes a more constant thing."
But this is about as much rooting around in his psyche as Chiles allows. He is a deeply religious man, given to private meditation. He is not part of the wear-it-on-your- sleeve-and-babble-it-on-television generation, able to chitchat about intensely personal life experiences with ease.
Just as he did not discuss it with his friends in the Senate, he does not enjoy discussing it now. "Depression is not something you talk to people about," he said.
After the briefest of glimpses into his traumas, his tone abruptly changes and his voice cheerfully booms, "But the good news is ..."
He uses this phrase so often in interviews that it is recognized now as the signal that Chiles has bared as much of his soul as he can tolerate.
"The good news is," he explained while driving between appearances on the campaign trail, "people come up to me every hour of every day and sort of squeeze my arm and say, 'Thank you, I thought I was the only one.' "
"The good news is," he said during an interview in his living room, "that this is a chemical imbalance. I don't have enough vitamin E and my skin breaks out, so I supplement my diet with vitamin E. The good news is that there's a supplement for the chemical imbalance that brings about depression. Thank goodness I got some good information on it and some good help."
"The good news is," he added later, "that this came out early. It allows people to watch me under the most stressful conditions during the greatest test that anybody can have and to see how I hold up to it."
If he is not convincing that he really believes public consumption of his treatment is good news, at least he is accurate about the timing. He had barely announced his candidacy, introducing former Rep. Kenneth "Buddy" MacKay as his running mate, when the first headlines put Chiles's use of Prozac on the front pages of newspapers around the state.
Psychologists were interviewed. Chiles's doctor, Karl Hempel, reassured reporters his 60-year-old patient -- who also had undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1985 -- was "in excellent shape."
"If everybody who's taking Prozac votes for Chiles, he'll win easily," Alfred E. Fireman, a physician, joked to the St. Petersburg Times. In another story, patients, doctors and authors on the subject of depression were interviewed for "Clamoring for Prozac," which informed readers that 650,000 to 800,000 prescriptions for the new drug are written around the country each month.
Finally, in late May, the ultimate Prozac story appeared: Chiles was interviewed by a Miami Herald reporter, Elinor J. Brecher, who had taken Prozac herself. Brecher wrote a personal story that combined her own symptoms and struggle with depression and her interview with Chiles.
By the time of their interview Chiles had grown weary of the subject, and leery of armchair psychoanalysis.
"The only people who bring it up," he grumbled to Brecher, "are the press and my enemies."
It's hard to blame his "enemies," especially the most desperate one. Bill Nelson, battered in the polls, is struggling to survive a primary contest that until April was almost a certain win for him. He is selling himself as the Democrats' promising young star, ready to replace the aging old pro. His campaign slogan is "A New Generation of Leadership," and in one of his television ads, he appears in his blue space shuttle spacesuit. On the trail, Nelson needles Chiles relentlessly for walking away from his responsibility in the Senate.
Nelson's NASA medical exam, released in the first few days of Chiles's candidacy, documented an ingrown toenail (right foot, big toe), gas and hemorrhoids. NASA being NASA, the review of Nelson's health was thorough. It also revealed that the 47-year-old Nelson never sucked his thumb as an infant, never loses sleep at night, doesn't eat between meals, never smoked, rarely drinks and never drinks beer.
"Every intimate detail is a campaign issue," Nelson said, guilelessly explaining why he considers health a valid topic of discussion. Nelson's campaign spokesman, Don Pride, points out that the candidate cannot be accused of making Prozac an issue because Nelson questioned Chiles's commitment, responsibilities and burnout before his depression was even revealed.
Martinez, 55, released his medical records, which revealed, among other things, he had a tonsillectomy as a child, a vasectomy at 43, and had recently lowered his cholesterol level and lost 30 pounds on a diet. Martinez released medical records in his first campaign for mayor of Tampa, but said this time that he was doing so only because reporters had asked.
With Nelson's hemorrhoids and Martinez's vasectomy before the public, Chiles promised in April to release his medical records, dating to his quadruple bypass. Then he backpedaled, saying all that was necessary to release was a partial record that included a January physical, the results of a recent treadmill test for stress showing he has the heart of a 40-year-old man and his doctor's assessment that his depression has been "completely resolved."
But Chiles opted not to disclose more, prompting the Miami Herald to editorialize, in the words of its headline, "Candor, Mr. Candidate." Thus far, Chiles has stuck to the limited hangout route.
To counter his opponents with some health-related symbolism all his own, Chiles has resurrected his Walkin' Lawton routine -- as corny in 1990 as it was fresh in 1970.
In the first weeks of his campaign, he pulled out his original walking boots, complete with the hole worn in one of the soles. With his long, lanky stride and gangling arms dangling at his side, he charged through the streets of Little Havana in Miami's relentless midday heat. He strolled vigorously through Century, in the Panhandle, where his first campaign began 20 years ago. He hiked 12 miles at sunrise along a bike path in St. Marks.
Chiles's campaign is handicapped, purposely, in another way -- one most modern pols consider far too risky to chance. Walkin' Lawton, ever the populist battling the fat cats, is refusing to accept contributions larger than $100.
Chiles has always scorned big-money elections, and in his 1976 reelection campaign limited campaign contributions to $10. But his strategists worry that the technique this time makes him even more vulnerable to attack because he won't have the money to go on the air to respond. Martinez plans to raise upward of $12 million. Nelson has raised $4 million. Chiles's money people guess they can raise about $3 million.
As the campaign hits its midsummer stride, the early hubbub about depression has given way to more conventional campaign-trail rhetoric. Chiles and Nelson have been busy picking at each other's positions on the environment, abortion and Florida's rampant growth -- positions so similar that Nelson, who badly needs a boost, has little room to distinguish himself.
But the Prozac issue always lurks. The first time Chiles met Nelson for a one-on-one debate, the old pro brought it up himself. Chiles aggressively quizzed the younger candidate about a rumor he'd heard that the Nelson campaign had a damaging TV spot about burnout in the can, ready to go on the air. Nelson sharply advised Chiles that he was misinformed. Nelson's handlers later conceded privately they have researched the matter, exploring audience reaction. But no ad, they said, was in the can when the two candidates met to debate.
When they met for a second time in June, Nelson raised the issue bluntly, demanding that Chiles explain why he won't burn out again. "In reviewing the circumstances of why you left the Senate, in your own words, you have said that you were burned out," Nelson challenged. "Your colleagues said that you were overwhelmed by the system. You said you couldn't control your own schedule. The question is, 'Why do you think the governor's job wouldn't be overwhelming?' "
Chiles rejected Nelson's premise. In Washington, he was one of 100 senators; in Florida, he'll be the chief executive.
He turned to face Nelson. "As governor," he said, "I'm going to have the baton in my hand."