When Bad Things Happen to Powerful People

Even cowgirls get the blues, and even world leaders get sick and die. Sometimes it happens while they were in office, although the public seldom knows. It was a long time before we knew just how much Woodrow Wilson’s stroke affected his second term. John F. Kennedy’s medical problems were successfully concealed throughout his time in public office. When Reagan’s fall to Alzheimer’s first set in will probably be a secret for another couple of decades. Miterrand’s cancer was hidden from the French public. The Italian press wasn’t writing about how serious Bossi’s health problems are.

The Rt Hon Lord David Owen, CH, a former British foreign secretary, tackles this issue in QJM, an Oxford journal on medicine, and not your usual place for political reading

Diseased, demented, depressed: serious illness in Heads of State

As both a physician and a politician, I was first touched by the question of how illness can affect the decision-making of Heads of State or Government when I met the Shah of Iran in Tehran in May 1977. He appeared to be at the height of his power: self-confident, and enjoying his global role in helping to determine world oil prices. It would have been a great help to have known then, and particularly a year later, that he had been suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. …

The French Foreign Minister Louis de Guiringaud told me later, when we had both left office, that he had known of the diagnosis. But he never told me when I was Foreign Secretary, or Cyrus Vance, the US Secretary of State. Had I known I would have pressed far more vigorously early in 1978, and certainly been adamant in the late summer and autumn of that year, that the Shah should stand down immediately on health grounds. … However, we were still treating him as an imperial leader, capable of making bold decisions, when in retrospect what he needed was to be told what to do and virtually forced to take treatment in Switzerland. If he had done so, the Revolution in Iran would not have taken place in the way that it did, President Carter might have won a second term, and certainly the history of the Middle East would have been very different.

There aren’t any easy answers to these questions, as Owen suggests at the end of the article

Reluctantly, I must also conclude that if a Head of State or Government becomes ill in office, different considerations apply and there can be no set rules. … Formal procedures for fixed medical examinations for an elected incumbent is a process with a pseudo-objectivity which can be blind to the complexities and dynamics of government, as well as the uncertain relationship between disease and the capacity to make decisions.

Thanks to Electrolite for the tip.

Writer’s block and the Amish Paradise

As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain
I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain
But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity
At 4:30 in the morning I’m milkin’ cows
Jebediah feeds the chickens and Jacob plows… fool
And I’ve been milkin’ and plowin’ so long that
Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone
I’m a man of the land, I’m into discipline
Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin
But if I finish all of my chores and you finish thine
Then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699

We been spending most our lives
Living in an Amish paradise
We’re all crazy Mennonites
Living in an Amish paradise
There’s no cops or traffic lights
Living in an Amish paradise
But you’d probably think it bites
Living in an Amish paradise

— Amish Paradise, “Weird Al” Yankovic

Belgium is hell in July.

The Belgians, of course, know this instinctively. I don’t quite understand how a nation can continue to function when the entire population is on vacation at the same time for a whole month. The trams get cut back to the point where they’re useless out in the eastern suburbs of Brussels and the weather isn’t much to write home about either. I still have to wear a jacket in the morning in late July.

Of course, I have this extra problem: allergies. Something in Belgium sprays its pollen in July. Something that just about kills me every time. And every summer, I tell myself, next year. Next year, don’t forget to take your goddamn vacation in July like every one else, and get as far from Belgium as you can! And every year – this is my third year here – I have to be in Belgium in July for some reason.

This year, it’s the final report for my research in translation automation. The work is done. The results are excellent, spectacular even. In another year, under other circumstances, I would feel tempted to find some venture capital and see if I can revolutionise the language industry. Instead, I’ve spent the last week wheezing in bed, taking hits off my Duovent bong, popping Tylenol and Claratin, and snorting this foul-smellng shit my doctor gave me for hay fever.

I’m suffering from the most profound writer’s block I think I’ve ever had. I can’t remember ever having felt so unable to organise or express my thoughts. I have tons to blog, and vast quantities of material on how to profit from the statistical properties of the lexicon, but I can barely bring myself to read my e-mail. Writing this paper is like having acute constipation. I push and I push and it hurts like hell, and all that comes out is a little bit of crap.

But, I’m back at work today and that brings me to my e-mail, specifically a letter pointing me to an article in Saturday’s Guardian about Manitoba Mennonite novelist Miriam Toews:
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In other news: Schumacher revealed to be fast driver

Picking up a riff from the gutter-press Bild-Zeitung, the Spiegel* discusses the coming-out of Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Free Democrats. (As a technical matter, this seems in fact to have been more an outing by the press, with the close and willing cooperation of the outee.)

Abiola Lapite waxes indignant at Bild‘s front-page story and photo (‘Westerwelle Loves This Man!‘). It’s sordid, of course; titillation for the nosey, as Abiola rightly classifies it. But then, sordidness is Bild‘s stock-in-trade. Even ‘Sunny weather tomorrow‘ takes on a sordid air, when it appears in Bild.

The thing is, though, Westerwelle’s homosexuality was surely the least-secret ‘secret’ in Germany. Though he hadn’t previously ‘officially’ admitted he is gay, nor did Westerwelle do anything to hide the fact. His gayness might sometimes have provided fodder for jokes in Titanic or on the late and lamented Harald Schmidt show (a blatant rip-off of Letterman that was often better than the original). But so far as I know, nobody ever made an issue of it.
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Poker with Dick Cheney. “Colin Powell: Ladies and gentlemen. We have accumulated overwhelming evidence that Mr. Cheney’s poker hand is far, far better than two pair. Note this satellite photo, taken three minutes ago when The Editors went to get more chips. In it we clearly see the back sides of five playing cards, arranged in a poker hand. Defector reports have assured us that Mr. Cheney’s hand was already well advanced at this stage. Later, Mr. Cheney drew only one card. Why only one card? Would a man without a strong hand choose only one card? We are absolutely convinced that Mr. Cheney has at least a full house.” Lots more.

Brussels and the Bosporus

Nine centuries after Pope Urban II sent the first Crusaders off to fight “the Turk,” 321 years after the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, Turkey and Europe are approaching a historic encounter. In December, leaders of European Union countries will vote on whether to begin negotiations that would lead to Turkey’s joining the EU. Every day it seems more likely that they will say yes.

Stephen Kinzer was the New York Times’ bureau chief in Istanbul from 1996 to 2004. He wrote quite a good book about Turkey, hitting the most important items, making the key arguments, but still telling the story vividly. Now he asks “Will Turkey Make It?” a question directed as much at Brussels as at Ankara.

In little more than a year as prime minister, Erdogan has proven himself more committed to democracy than any of the self-proclaimed “secular” leaders who misruled Turkey during the 1990s. He has secured passage of laws and constitutional amendments abolishing the death penalty and army-dominated security courts; he repealed curbs on free speech, and brought the military budget under civilian control for the first time in Turkish history. He authorized Kurdish-language broadcasting, swept aside thirty years of Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus issue, and eased Greek?Turkish tension so effectively that when he visited Athens in May, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis proclaimed that the two countries now enjoyed “a relation of cooperation based on mutual trust.”

Kinzer says yes, most probably, Turkey will make it.

This is an interesting take on the geopolitical angle:

Admitting Turkey would set the EU on an ambitious new path. It could greatly strengthen Europe’s strategic position, giving it added weight in competition with the United States and other powers that might emerge later in the century. With Turkey and the combat-ready Turkish army in its ranks, the EU would be able to speak with a combination of moral authority and military credibility that it has never before been able to claim

So read the whole thing.