Like most Texans, I was disappointed to see Dan Patrick’s mid-1980s mental health issues raised as a campaign issue. The problem isn’t that a candidate’s physical or mental health history is intrinsically irrelevant. It’s often the candidates themselves who raise such issues as experiences that affected the course of their life, or the way they approach certain issues today, as when Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas talked about his battle with lymphoma, or, for that matter, when George W. Bush wrote about his decision to give up drinking.
But in cases where a candidate would prefer not to disclose a current or previous health issue, should they be obligated to do so? That’s almost inevitably a judgment call, but I would err on the side of acknowledging some right to privacy. A health condition may be a matter of legitimate public interest insofar as it affects a public official’s behavior, but from that perspective, the behavior is more salient than the underlying cause. The public record, in other words, is usually more important than the medical one. An exception, I guess, would be where a candidate is concealing a health issue that is bound to make itself manifest, and that would severely impair his or her ability to carry out the responsibilities of the office.
The current case, in my opinion, doesn’t meet that criterion. Patrick’s public record is full of things that he can fairly be criticized for–lying, blustering, condescending, playing the victim. The implication of the reports about his medical history seems to be that the mental health issues for which Patrick sought professional treatment continue to affect him, and may be reflected in the types of behavior mentioned. That may be the case, but does it matter? The reason we criticized Patrick for bullying witnesses last session as chair of the Senate Public Ed committee is that it’s wrong to bully witnesses, and that doing so may affect the productivity of the committee. The reason many people have criticized him for making patently untrue assertions about an “illegal invasion” is that such rhetoric is pointlessly inflammatory, and that insofar as the assertion is untrue, it’s not a good basis for drafting public policy. The behavior is what’s relevant–and it’s relevant because of its effects, and regardless of its cause.
Also, let’s be realistic here. The lieutenant governor of Texas is important, but we’ve had some idiosyncratic people in that office before. It may be that one or two of them have thought they could disperse clouds with their minds. None of them, thankfully, have had access to the nuclear codes.
(AP Image / Nomaan Merchant)