Elect the Healthiest!

by JAMES NELSON

JAMES NELSON left editorial work in New York to become a full-time f ree lance. He li ves i n California, and his book The Trouble with (Gumballs is being published by Simon and Schuster.

IN THE 1968 presidential election, as a result of the three previous campaigns and their sequelae, the major parties acknowledged only one overwhelming issue: health.

The Democrats, eager to steal a march, fired the first big gun several months before their convention. They released a survey made for them by Impartial Research, Inc., which showed that during the past eight years — four Democratic, four Republican— 23.5 per cent more Republicans than Democrats died in elective office. The survey, coming on the heels of Republican ex-President Garrison’s announcement of his availability, was obviously timed to catch the Grand Old Party off balance. And it did.

The following Monday, however, Garrison made the first major Republican rebuttal. In a friendly, informal television talk, he declared that not only was his own health sound, but so was the party’s. He then produced an elaborate series of colored charts which purported to demolish the Democratic survey — first by demonstrating bias in the sample, and then by pointing out that the Democratic study took no account of the Accident versus Death from Natural Causes factor. More than half the Republicans dying in office, Garrison declared, were struck down not by disease but by moving vehicles — of which, he added, 61 per cent were driven by Democrats! Bold though the speech was, two weeks later Garrison reached into the ring and withdrew his hat. At first this tended to confirm rumors that Garrison had prepared his charts with more enthusiasm than research.

The aging Alsops were not the first to point out the hollowness of this explanation. Easily a dozen Washington columnists carried the exclusive story that Garrison’s recent physical had turned up a mild anemia. It then remained for the venerable Reston, in the Times, to bring to light the fact that Garrison, during the four preceding Democratic years, had suffered increasingly from nagging backache as well as from pain and distress of upset stomach.

One week later, gleeful that the popular ex-President had been forced out of the race, the Democrats convened at Chicago. There they selected Frank Dolliver Guptill to head their 1968 slate. Although Guptill, up to the time of the convention, had served only as a minor functionary, addressing envelopes, licking stamps, and the like, it was not hard, as more became known, to see why he was selected. Even the Southern Democrats, who had come to Chicago fearful that civil rights might once again split the party, found it easy to rally round a clear-eyed candidate whose blood pressure was 130 over 80, and who neither smoked nor drank.

The nonsmoking angle was getting a big play in Democratic propaganda at the time the Republican convention opened, particularly because Washington B. McDonald, the leading Republican contender since Garrison’s withdrawal, had a long history of cigarette addiction, as well as a tennis elbow. Thus it was no surprise when the party solons by-passed McDonald and selected Vaughan Hardwick Timmons, Jr., as their candidate. Timmons, a vigorous stripling of thirty-eight, had never had a major illness in his life.

Timmons vs. Guptill. Guptill vs. Timmons. Even Drew Pearson would predict no more than a record vote.

Five days before the election the Democrats, who had three hundred private detectives on the job, came up with the information that Timmons had undergone major surgery late in 1967 and that the Republican high command had deliberately concealed the fact.

This was the break the Republicans had been waiting for. Jubilantly they replied that the appendectomy had not been occasioned by abdominal pains or by a high white-count; on the contrary, Timmons had voluntarily elected to have it, as a purely prophylactic measure. Unlike Guptill, whose appendix was still firmly (and dangerously, the Republicans hinted) attached to his caecum, Timmons was now in a position to “better serve his country without loss of work time due to emergency surgery.”

Furthermore, said the Republicans, who had been employing a few detectives of their own, why didn’t Democratic candidate Guptill salt his food? Was he on a low-salt diet? A salt-free diet? The nation deserved to know.

This was a telling blow, and Guptill took to the air waves to answer it. Three nights before the election, in a simple, moving speech, Guptill reviewed his medical history: Born, normal delivery. Measles at age 4, mumps at age 8, chiekenpox and tonsillitis (nonrecurrent) at age 10. Minor orthodontia at age 12 to correct an overbite. Broke nose at age 14 playing touch football; set properly, septum undeviated. Greenstick fracture of the upper arm just before the eighteenth birthday, also while playing football. Inoculated at various times for smallpox, diphtheria, yellow fever, polio, hay fever. As for his abstinence from salt, it was not ominous. No one in his family — purely as a matter of preference and not for medical reasons — had ever used much salt.

The humble tone of Gupt ill’s address left many a TV viewer dabbing at his eyes. The political columnists, furthermore, agreed that the Republican attack on Guptill’s salt habits, far from weakening his position, had actually strengthened it.

Time was short, and the shaken Republicans grasped at straws. Chairman Alston Benedict assembled a panel of noted allergists for a half hour on TV which ended with the doctors in unanimous agreement that Guptill’s hay fever shots were worthless. An ironic note is provided by the fact that, because Benedict and his confreres were so busy trying to build Guptill’s two fractures into an abnormal interest in sports (portending excessive absence from the White House to participate), they entirely overlooked the fact that Guptill had never been inoculated for tetanus.

The day before the election, Republican Timmons came down with a bad case of laryngitis and a cold. In his windup television address that night, it was obvious he was merely mouthing words that were being read by someone else.

Guptill, on the other hand, kept gaining momentum to the last. On his final 10-10:30 TV stint election eve, as a clincher, he introduced a diversified group of twelve of the nation’s foremost medical specialists, and then proceeded to strip to his underwear shorts for the first complete physical in TV history.

Fourth-estate pundits w ho watched both broadcasts, including the rather startling barium fluoroscopy with which Guptill closed his appeal, no longer hesitated. Guptill, they predicted in stories for the morning editions, was in.

They had not reckoned with the power of television. At exactly 10:31, while Guptill was still buttoning his shirt, a cascade of glockenspiels announced the widely viewed MillionDollar Quiz. Some twelve minutes later, an untidy 65-year-old farmer from Drawstring, Arkansas, whose name was Alfred Higgins and whose category was bootlegging, came up for his $250,000 question. During the customary pre-question pleasantries, the master of ceremonies asked Higgins, facetiously, how he would stack up, were he running against Timmons and Guptill in the morrow’s election.

“Well, I ain’t no spring chicken,” Higgins replied candidly, “and I got a leaky valve in the old pump, but I’ll tell you this, young feller: if I was President, I’d sure-by-gum support all crops at 110 per cent of parity! And double that there minimum wage!”

Needless to say, Higgins, thanks to the Twenty-fifth (write-in vote) Amendment, became the nation’s thirty-ninth President. He served until December 28, 1971, on which day he died of acute alcoholism, thereby leaving the 1972 election as wide open as any ever had been in the history of these United States.