By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Bush’s bulge reconsidered

Richard Sloan is a doctor and I’m not. No doubt his medical credentials are what led the folks at NPR’s “On the Media” to correct one of their guests from the previous week, Northeastern University professor Robert Gilbert. But his medical degree aside, Sloan’s e-mail turns out to be yet another example of something I’ve complained about before: a letter to the editor that should have been fact-checked but wasn’t, and was — as best as I can tell — just plain wrong.

Gilbert, the author of “The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House,” appeared on “OTM” on Jan. 27 to discuss speculation that Vice President Dick Cheney’s changing shoe size is evidence of congestive heart failure, and that the bulge on President Bush’s back — briefly a cause célèbre during the 2004 presidential campaign — was related to a cardiac problem. Here’s what Gilbert told cohost Bob Garfield:

Well, I don’t think the modern press is particularly vigilant when it comes to the President’s health. For example, when President Bush supposedly fainted a few years ago after eating a pretzel and choking on a pretzel, the press basically accepted that explanation. But there certainly had been intimations by some doctors that the President might, in point of fact, have certain health problems. One problem that I’ve heard is that he might have the same condition that his father had, atrial fibrillation, and might actually be wearing an electrical device to monitor his heart and shock his heart back into normal rhythm if it goes out of rhythm.

This past Friday, the following letter from Professor Richard Sloan of Columbia University Medical Center, in New York, was read on the air (there is no transcript available yet):

Your speculation, endorsed by your guest, was that George Bush’s losing battle with a pretzel was evidence of an undisclosed heart condition, possibly explaining that squarish bulge on his back during the first debate with John Kerry. That is, the bulge might be an electrical device designed to control atrial fibrillation, the same condition that his father had. Pacemakers, the devices that perform this function, are implanted in the chest and not visible in outline on a person’s back. Whatever that bulge was it was not a pacemaker.

Gotcha, Professor Gilbert! But wait. A year ago I wrote a column on this very subject. And the speculation was that Bush was wearing something called a LifeVest. Please understand — I’m not claiming to be any type of medical expert. But the LifeVest is a real device, and it is a portable defibrillator worn outside the body designed, as Gilbert said, to “shock [the] heart back into a normal rhythm if it goes out of rhythm.”

Here is a description of the LifeVest by its manufacturer, LifeCor:

The LifeVest is the first wearable defibrillator. Unlike an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), the LifeVest is worn outside the body rather than implanted in the chest. This device continuously monitors the patient’s heart with dry, non-adhesive sensing electrodes to detect life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms. If a life-threatening rhythm is detected, the device alerts the patient prior to delivering a shock, and thus allows a conscious patient to disarm the shock. If the patient is unconscious, the device releases a gel over the therapy electrodes and delivers an electrical shock to restore normal rhythm.

I’m sure that Dr. Sloan knows his stuff inside and out. Maybe I’m missing something. But it certainly looks like he misunderstood Gilbert and fired off an e-mail without giving it much thought. And “OTM,” by reading Sloan’s letter on the air, allowed Gilbert to look like someone engaged in irresponsible speculation.

“OTM” needs to correct the correction — and apologize to Gilbert.

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  1. Anonymous

    I don’t buy this.There are bigger fish to fry than speculate on the health of someone who appears to be healthy and still works out at the same rythm.Every year, the doctors’ official diagnosis is that the President is in good health, much better for a man his age.If he is not standing for re-election anymore, what is the benefit of hiding such news?I just don’t think it is with merit.Actually, come to think of it, if the Prez indeed had a condition, the cynic in me thinks he’d use that to his advantage with a pity quotient propping his poll numbers.I could imagine Sean Vannity scolding people for criticizing a “Commander-in-Chief so burdened by the nation’s business he is at risk from a heart attack at any moment.” HaCome on, guys, let’s not dwell on these speculations. There are so many other issues to talk about.I trust we would learn about something like that if or when it happened.N.

  2. Specks

    Suspect that ther multitude of speculations that it is/was a:1. Drug pumpor2. Communication device Will prove true.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Please understand that I have no opinion as to whether Bush wears a portable defibrillator. All I’m trying to do here is point out that Gilbert accurately reported what the speculation is regarding the bulge on Bush’s back, and that there is some basis for that speculation. “OTM” allowed Sloan to make Gilbert look like an uninformed nut.

  4. Wes

    Sloan, and by their act, OTM, join the ranks of corrosive flunkies intent on twisting Americans to the point that they no longer believe their own two eyes.

  5. Anonymous

    On The Media is a really good show, I’m sorry that the first mention of it by this interesting media critic is this post. It even rises above the chronic snarkiness of host Bob Whatshisname.Dan, I’d like to know what you think of this show in general.

  6. Aaron Read

    Question: do Cheney’s well-documented heart problems make it more or less acceptable to the general public that Bush may have a heart problem?One could argue that the Dark Lord’s been chugging along just fine from his undisclosed iron lung …err… undisclosed location 🙂 for several years now, despite a triple bypass (quadruple? I forget).OTOH, one could also argue that because Cheney’s health is, by definition, somewhat fragile…it’s that much more important that Bush appear healthy.

  7. Anonymous

    If you really want snarky, check out “Wait, wait, don’t tell me!” some weekend. Great opportunity for Charlie Pierce to repeat his contention that America is run by Nazis. Derision of Bush on public radio isn’t the best way to prove you’re fair and balanced, in my opinion.

  8. Anonymous

    Ok, 12:05 anonymous. I dispute that Pierce or anyone else on WWDTM has *ever* said “America is run by Nazis.” And your casual use of the term is denigrating to the victims of the real nazis.

  9. Specks

    The differential between nazis and fascists has been well documented for some months on webbies of all stripes. Nazism was a unique and distinctly German movement; Americans are not organized enough, nor of one nationalistic bent to fall into this catagory.Fascism fits our present system…like a glove.

  10. Anonymous

    This is disturbing how the discussion eveloved from a bulge to Nazism.Let’s bring it around:I really resent the need to go to Nazism to extrapolate meanings for today. It may be correct and handy sometimes or even obvious but it is invariably always exploited by one side over the other, and given the sensivity of the subject, one side gets boxed in and can’t defend or answer any more, like this glorious overused line: “your casual use of the term is denigrating to the victims of the real nazis”Enough with these tactics.You can always find communality with nationalistic movements, Nazism being one of the most successful unfortunately, that you can always draw similarities to some modern party or movement.Nazism is not a scurge you want alive in people’s mind, let it go and avoid mentioning it.I’d like to think that in a perfect world we should mention it to draw the right lessons to avoid it and show its true image and sickness, but that has also been a missed opportunity since we get a lot of punks like this New Bedford moron who was worshipping its relics or even the rise in Skinhead and right wing influence in Europe lately.We have enough in our modern Laws and principles to right things without resorting to divisive name calling, that usually just gives a chance to someone somewhere to rise and defend something hard to defend.So let sleeping dogs rest.Both sides use the term for political jabs and I can imagine how Charlie might use such a dig at an administration that is not popular in NPR circles or any honest enlighted circles, right or left. The fact that the mood is light in “Wait Wait” or that the host is a Jewish person doesn’t diminish from the poor taste. I wish he wouldn’t use it.It is funny though to note that when Republkicans use it, it is ok and ignored but when a Dem does it, he is assailed and painted as a closeted ….(fill in the blanks.)When it comes to general fairness and news, the world has to come to an end, be reborn and then maybe any of a self-serving opportunistic dishonest Aussie’s organizations may be fairer and more balanced than NPR or PBS.You can’t avoid a human tinge when wirting or describing the news. That will always seep whether from in the right or the left, but if you had to choose where to learn thoroughly and reliably about a news item, you have to give the edge to Public radio and TV. They have a stellar talent and much higher standards.I resent that jab at their fairness as much I resent Valentine’s Day pledge drives.The issue in my mind is this:1- The White House never came out and said the photos were doctored. so we know this object is real.2- It is pitiful and symptomatic of this Oval Office to not open its heart on the most innocent matters. Why not tell the people what it is. If you won’t, then don’t use that device or direct the cameras not to video from the back. Such requests are routine.If it is health-related, there is no indication in the President demeanor or his health news that says it is. I hope it is not a medical device. You don’t want to wish ill-will on ANYbody.It it is a communication device then so be it. He can have Karl Rove right by his side answering for him, a good debater like Kerry should over come him, his device, him and Karl Rove or all of them together. There is plenty of vulnerability there to attack on a public forum. It would be even more embarrasing that Dems to have lost an election where the prez had to use a comm device.So any way you cut it, IT DOESN’T MATTER!Let it go.N.

  11. John Galt

    Yet more proof that the blogowhatever is 99.999% windbaggery. Tiresome… and repetitious.

  12. Anonymous

    And full of useless blowhards like you, John.Why are you wasting your precious time here then?N.

  13. Anonymous

    Oh, for god’s sake. NOW do you guys agree DK should disable comments???

  14. Unanimous

    Belch Fart WheezeNo more than three lines please

  15. Anonymous

    Is that all your brain can handle or think up?I’ll say it again: why do some parasites have to insult others, out of insecurity or ego problems, and put them down for their freedom to write whatever this forum was conceived to do and be. Whether you agree or not.People want to discuss matters, so be it. You are a guest, behave like a guest and don’t force your will and timetable on others. If you do, get your own darn blog. There tons of those on the ether with a line usually saying this:” Permalink. Comments (o)”You have the freedom to not read it.Bimbos are not to be the center of the attention for the world. Rather, The world is meant to educate and better them. They are not supposed to bring others to their low ignorant, unable-to-think-or-ennunciate level.That’s what a French saying calls a ‘happy idiot’N.

  16. Anonymous

    N. wrote: You are a guest, behave like a guest and don’t force your will and timetable on others. If you do, get your own darn blog. We wish. I would personally pay N. to do this.

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