At the time of his death last month, Rep. C.W. Bill Young was a man of immense power in Washington and had been unopposed or had easily won re-election every two years since the 1970s. Young, 82, served more than four decades in the House and was the longest-serving Republican in Congress. It was no secret that he battled health problems in recent years. What was not known was that he had been diagnosed five years ago with multiple myeloma — a cancer of the plasma cells found in bone marrow. Young's widow, Beverly, made that disclosure just last week to the Tampa Bay Times' Washington bureau chief, Alex Leary.
The Indian Shores Republican won re-election against credible opponents in 2010 and 2012 without disclosing to his constituents his cancer diagnosis and treatment regimen.
Young was hardly the first politician to be less than forthcoming about his health. Had the public known the full range of John F. Kennedy's health problems, including Addison's disease, and the prescription drugs he relied on, it is entirely possible he would not have won the Democratic nomination for president in 1960.
Former Massachusetts Democratic senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas also was less than forthcoming about his bout with cancer, which eventually claimed his life. To this day, the full extent of President Franklin Roosevelt's health issues are not fully known. And even though he was barely sentient, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's aides insisted he remained sharp as a tack even as he was virtually a full-time hospital resident at 100.
It is an age-old question in politics: How much information about the health of a candidate for high office or an elected officeholder does the public have a right to know? Apparently not very much.
It would seem Young followed the example established by corporate America. Securities and Exchange Commission rules about top executives revealing critical health issues are murky at best. The SEC only requires the release of information that is "material," which allows a broad interpretation. That may explain why Apple's Steve Jobs didn't think it was "material" enough to his shareholders to divulge he was in the late stages of pancreatic cancer.
Mrs. Young said in an interview Monday that her husband considered revealing his cancer. She said he decided against it after his doctors assured him he had responded well to treatment and that his ability to do the job would not be affected. Fair enough. But didn't his constituents have a right to the same information?
"Why?" Mrs. Young asked, noting that her husband was under no responsibility to disclose if he had a hernia, for example. Then she added this about her husband's cancer diagnosis: "There's no cure for it. They can treat it. He took medication."
However — and this is the delicate part, so soon after Young's death — the multiple myeloma did impact Young's ability to serve. After all, he died less than halfway into what he announced days before his death would be his last term. As Leary reported, the cancer complicated Young's broken hip, which had landed him in the hospital and caused excruciating pain. Because of the cancer, Young's brittle bones could not support a medical pin.
Since surviving a 1970 plane crash, Young endured decades of back problems. The advent of bone marrow-related cancer exacerbated the problems. Did his constituents have a right to know?
You might argue Jessica Ehrlich had a right to know. In 2012, the Democrat captured 42.4 percent of the vote against the incumbent's 57.6 percent. Even with the 15-point spread, it was the closest any challenger had come to Young in decades.
Suppose Young had disclosed his cancer diagnosis? Would the vote have been narrower? If the vote had been closer, would Ehrlich have been in a stronger position after Young's death to run again instead of being forced to step aside for Alex Sink? We'll never know.
All politicians love to extol the judgment of their constituents.
Young ably served his district, his state and his country for decades. He had a reserve of enormous goodwill with voters in Florida and colleagues in Washington. He could have leveled with his constituents, realizing that at the end of the day he had nothing to fear in trusting the voters to make a fully informed decision about who could best represent them in Congress.