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How to Cover a Sick Old Man


When John Bresnahan was starting out as a reporter in the mid-1990s, he approached Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had run for president in 1948 as a segregationist and was still shuffling through the Capitol. Senator Thurmond, born in 1902, gave no indication that he’d understood Mr. Bresnahan’s question and responded with a non sequitur.

The young reporter saw his older colleagues shaking their heads and snickering. The kid had expected the elderly senator to be able to carry on a conversation! They didn’t report on Senator Thurmond’s infirmity — that wasn’t how things were done — but they all knew about it.

These days, Mr. Bresnahan is the congressional bureau chief for Politico. A Navy veteran with the demeanor of a guy you’ve dragged out of a dive bar in the eighth inning of the Yankees game, he has become Capitol Hill’s grim reaper, a rare reporter with the stomach to print some obvious truths: that some top lawmakers aren’t all there.

In 2017, Mr. Bresnahan and his colleague Anna Palmer wrote that the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate’s appropriations committee, Thad Cochran, was “frail and disoriented,” a story that sped his retirement. Last month, Mr. Bresnahan and Marianne LeVine reported that fellow Democrats were worried whether Dianne Feinstein was up to leading her side of the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings because she gets “confused by reporters’ questions, or will offer different answers to the same question depending on where or when she’s asked.”

This kind of reporting is impolite. It’s also totally obvious, and a natural feature of America’s recent slide toward gerontocracy. On Capitol Hill, everyone “knows this stuff,” Mr. Bresnahan said. “I just am the one to write it.”

I was thinking of Mr. Bresnahan as I watched reporters arrayed at Walter Reed military hospital on Sunday facing yet another moment of crisis for the news media, one even more basic than many of the hard challenges of the Trump era. The White House press corps is trying to perform a fundamental job of journalism — delivering simple facts about President Trump’s condition — in the face of Mr. Trump’s years of casual fabrication and his doctors’ clumsy evasions and contradictions. They’re covering the biggest policy failure of his administration in the most literal sense imaginable.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

And yet they’re also doing something obviously uncomfortable. It’s hard not to feel some human revulsion for the sight of healthy, TV-ready young journalists braying for the vital signs of a sick old man. But there is no question that this prying is in the urgent public interest, and the White House press corps is working with admirable aggression and openness. We need to know who is in charge of the government, and to understand the outcome of President Trump’s long evasion of the coronavirus crisis as Americans begin to vote.

By refusing to speak honestly about basic facts, the White House is really “annihilating the press’s role,” said Elizabeth Drew, a former New Yorker Washington correspondent who covered President Ronald Reagan’s shooting in 1981 and his staff’s success at playing down the grave risk to his life.

Physical decline is likely to be a major feature of the next few years of American politics, at least. The current line of succession, after Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, features Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is 80, and the Senate president pro tempore, Charles Grassley, 87, who also runs the Senate Finance Committee. Ms. Pelosi’s two most powerful deputies in the House, James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, are both 80 or older. Over in the Senate, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee is 85 and coasting to re-election. The chairman of the Appropriations Committee is 86. Joe Biden, who turns 78 next month, is nearly a year younger than the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who is also seeking re-election in November.

This concentration of power in the hands of the old is an American phenomenon, Derek Thompson recently wrote in The Atlantic, noting that our leaders are getting older as European leaders get younger.

When politicians won’t share honest results, health experts’ long-range diagnoses should be treated as news. The whispers by reporters and lawmakers’ aides about feeling as if they work in a nursing home should find their way onto the record. And the most powerful people in the country should learn from Mr. Trump’s disastrous example that if you lie consistently about your health, nobody will believe you in a crisis.

None of this comes easily.

“Reporters are human beings and we cover these people,” Mr. Bresnahan told me. “You have respect for who the person was. It’s difficult.”

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