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Washington Diary: What Was That Again

By Margaret Carlson

Time cover

(TIME, October 13) -- Among those of us who have resisted growing up, it's an article of faith that we can put off growing old. We work out, we eat poached salmon, we devour alternative-medicine nostrums while gobbling antioxidant vitamin supplements, just in case. We don't ask the first baby-boomer President for much -- not for universal health care, not for campaign-finance purity, not even for a tax cut. But we do count on him, as the emblem of our age, not to give in to the ravages of time. He was re-elected in part because he complied. He looks improbably young. His hair may be gray, but it's all there. He runs without gasping for air, and he's managed to lose 20 lbs. when it's all too easy to gain twice that.

So the news on Friday that the President was fitted with hearing aids hurts. Bifocals are one thing, Miracle-Ear quite another. For once, the many baby boomers covering Clinton feel his pain.

After Clinton's annual physical at Bethesda Naval Hospital, White House spokesman Mike McCurry announced the presidential ear trumpet. "It's called high-frequency audio loss, and it's a boomer malady," McCurry said. "Helicopters probably made it worse for Clinton, but loud music does it to most of us." Clinton, of course, actually had horns blowing directly at him during his years in the school band. He should have practiced safe sax.

While his hearing loss comes early for us, it may not be a minute too soon for Clinton. Presidents have long used their infirmities to deflect attention from their mistakes. Funny how Lyndon Johnson unveiled his appendectomy scar during the Vietnam quagmire. Remember that Woodrow Wilson's stroke muted criticism of his failure to bring the U.S. into the League of Nations. More recently, Reagan joked about getting shot, and his popularity shot up. His favorability leaped again after he waved cheerily from his hospital room, fresh from having had polyps removed from his colon. That feel-good moment saw him through Iran-contra. We liked that he was out of the loop.

But some Presidents struggle to keep their physical frailties secret. Eisenhower called his first heart attack digestive upset. Kennedy played touch football with over-compensating vigor rather than give a hint of his Addison's disease. Bush got no sympathy for throwing up in Japan and no understanding when an aide blamed thyroid medicine for his cluelessness during the '92 campaign. Dole's remarking that "Some of the things that we read about don't return as quickly as advertised" after prostate surgery just reminded us he was old.

Clinton can't use poor hearing to explain his failure to discern the roar of Whitewater, but it has possibilities for his current troubles. Experts agree that hearing loss is most pronounced at social events. All those coffees? He never heard a word that John Huang said. Was Roger Tamraz talking about a pipeline--or Nightline? Those pleas from Harold Ickes to make fund-raising calls? He turned a deaf ear.

Clinton would be well advised, however, not to try that hand-to-the-ear thing when reporters are shouting questions. Sympathy for your frailty will carry you just so far, even among aging reporters who might not be able to hear your answers anyway.





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