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Needlessly feeling our own pain

Memo to the president: Forget about standing tall and striding the world stage for a while. Don't worry about the lame jokes about a lame-duck presidency. Enough is enough. Come home. Lie down. Take a load off your foot.

It's barely a week since Bill Clinton took that ill-fated trip down Greg Norman's steps. But the post-op president has already gone off to Helsinki, Finland, with his brace, his wheelchair and his crutches, thus adding jet lag to a list of symptoms long enough to turn any commander in chief into an unhappy camper.

The only good that will come from wheeling the leader of the Western world up to this summit is that it will make Bypass Boris look positively hale.

But for the rest of us, it's bad news. Ever since Bill ripped his tendon into shreds and felt his pain, he has become a poster boy for the great American medical pastime: toughing it out. Let's review the history, as they say on hospital grand rounds. The man who is so often scorned as "soft" has turned into a case study for the burgeoning Annals of Macho Medicine.

Day One: After the man went bump in the night, we were told that Clinton was joking with the doctors and requesting Lyle Lovett tapes in the operating room.

Day Two: We were told that the president had been awake throughout surgery. How alert? So alert that he asked for a book to read. He didn't get one.

Day Three: We were informed by a pleased-as-punch group of doctors that their patient was so tough that he eschewed the usual narcotics in favor of mental clarity and lesser pain control.

Day Four: He was back at work while his doctors joked about how hard it will be to keep a good man _ and his weight _ down.

This sort of bravado, the towel-slapping good humor in the face of injury, has become the standard pre-operating procedure ever since Ronald Reagan asked his doctors if they were Republicans. Presidential hang-tough syndrome is supposed to make the public feel reassured that the country is in strong hands.

Well, maybe it is comforting to know that, even in the operating room, our president's mind and hands were so clear that he could push that little red button. Or maybe it's malarkey.

Now this is probably a, uh, sore point with me. Some weeks ago, after a column that was nothing but a desperate ploy for sympathy for my knee surgery, I received all manner of e-mail promises that I would be up and running in no time. Well, I am up. And walking. In some time.

It is only now that I keep running, or rather walking, into the people who inform me _ a bit sheepishly _ that their recovery was an itsy-bit slower than predicted.

It's not just in the White House that ill health has become an admission of physical or moral weakness. Macho medicine is a national specialty.

Consider the way Americans are undermedicated and undermedicating themselves for pain. In a piece in U.S. News, Steven Hyman, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says, "We are pharmacological Calvinists."

As for macha medicine? Not that long ago, natural childbirth was regarded in the same category as a natural appendectomy. Now, if childbirth doesn't come naturally, mothers often regard themselves as failures.

Meanwhile, on television, the macho medicine-makers produce ads in which the purpose of cold and flu tablets is to get us back to the office _ where we can spread the cold and flu. The office itself now boasts an updated corporate philosophy of medicine: Only wimps take sick days.

If the president wants to comfort the nation, how about showing that it's okay to take it easy. The fiber of the country won't fall apart while the presidential tendon is healing.

Memo to the president: Don't worry. Greg Norman owes you a lifetime of golf lessons. Meanwhile, take it like a man. Take it lying down.

Boston Globe Newspaper Co.

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