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Cardiac kids
Internet speculation about Bush’s and Cheney’s health poses a media dilemma. Plus, Barnicle’s Herald stint sours; what the sale of Slate means for online media; and Arthur Sulzberger changes his mind.

DOES GEORGE W. BUSH sometimes wear a portable defibrillator? Is Dick Cheney suffering from congestive heart failure? You won’t find out by reading this, but both stories have been making the rounds on the Internet. Of course, so does every manner of half-baked rumor and conspiracy theory. What distinguishes these particular items is that they are based on well-grounded speculation.

With Bush, the defibrillator has emerged as a possible explanation for that bulge seen under his jacket during the first presidential debate, and on other occasions as well — something that has never been credibly addressed by the White House. With Cheney, blogger Joshua Micah Marshall — a mainstream journalist who’s written for the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Monthly — picked up on a newspaper item that suggested the vice-president’s feet have gotten bigger by noting that swelling of the feet is a well-known symptom of congestive heart failure. Given Cheney’s delicate cardiac health (four heart attacks, plus an internal defibrillator that was implanted in 2001), Marshall’s speculation would appear, at the very least, to rise to the level of a real possibility. It goes without saying, I suppose, that the White House press office did not return my call seeking comment.

All this raises a question that I can attempt to answer: is there value to certain types of non-nutty Internet speculation that the mainstream media, for the most part, refuse to touch?

The Bush bulge, as you may recall, was an Internet sensation that briefly made it into the mainstream after some observers speculated it was some sort of a radio transmitter, from which he received instructions during his first debate with John Kerry. But that seemed less plausible after a photo was circulated showing the same bulge while he was driving a pickup truck around his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in August 2002. The White House described the debate bulge simply as a fold in his suit — unlikely, given that he was wearing a T-shirt in the Crawford photo. Nor did it look like part of a bulletproof vest.

The portable-defibrillator theory goes back at least to October, as do theories that he was wearing an insulin pump or a back brace. But the most fully developed version of the defibrillator story that I’ve found was written in late December by Clayton Hallmark, an electrical engineer based in Cleveland, Ohio, whose article has appeared on a variety of anti-Bush Web sites — including, perhaps most prominently, the Daily Kos. Hallmark’s piece begins plausibly, noting the bulge’s resemblance to a certain type of portable defibrillator strapped onto the back called the LifeVest. He also points out that both of Bush’s parents have Graves’ disease, a form of hyperthyroidism that can cause the sort of potentially fatal cardiac arrhythmia that a defibrillator is designed to reverse. Indeed, the former president landed in the hospital with an arrhythmia in 2000. So far, so good. But Hallmark layers speculation upon speculation, guessing that George W.’s problems began with the infamous pretzel-induced fainting spell of January 2002; that his medical condition may be related to his history of alcoholism; that he may have suffered a stroke; and that he may be exhibiting incipient signs of dementia. Whew!

In a telephone interview, Hallmark told me that part of his aim was to goad the media into investigating. "It is speculative, but to me it’s obvious what it is," he said. "As far as the MSM [the mainstream media], they don’t like to be told their agenda. That’s part of the problem. What I’m trying to do is apply enough heat to it to cause it to bubble to the surface of the public consciousness."

The matter of Marshall and Cheney is more straightforward. On December 2, the Washington Post ran a short gossip item on Cheney’s buying a new pair of shoes "because his shoe size changed to a size 10EEE." Marshall took note on his weblog, Talking Points Memo, observing that "10EEE is a rather large size," and adding: "Swollen feet is a symptom of congestive heart failure, particularly when the enlargement is in both feet (thus signalling a systemic cause).... Cheney’s history of severe heart disease at least points to the possibility of a heart-related cause." Marshall’s item is well-caveated; he observes in his item that "even later in life one’s shoe size can simply change for entirely benign reasons." Nevertheless, he told me by e-mail that he "went over it in my head quite a bit before I did the post," but that he ultimately concluded it was plausible enough to raise at least as a possibility — especially after he spoke with a physician who assured him that enlarged feet were indeed consistent with congestive heart failure. Marshall did not tell the physician that he was inquiring about Cheney. "For blogs in general," Marshall added, "one always gets into these sorts of quandaries — issues that aren’t necessarily clear-cut from a normative media perspective and yet one which journalists themselves would certainly talk about, or would get talked about at conferences, etc. ... I tried to be very clear what I did and did not know, etc., and why I was discussing it."

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Issue Date: January 7 - 13, 2005
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