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Jerry Brown's nose and the public's right to know

California Gov. Jerry Brown didn't disclose his cancer treatment until after the fact, even though reporters had earlier asked about a telltale bandage.

May 06, 2011|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
  • After his surgery, Gov. Jerry Brown canceled a major address at California's Democratic Party convention in Sacramento and suspended his campaign to sell his budget to voters across the state at a critical time.
After his surgery, Gov. Jerry Brown canceled a major address at California's… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Sacramento -- Gov. Jerry Brown's recent disclosure that he had been treated for a common, curable cancer raises anew the thorny issue of how much the public has a right to know about such matters.

The governor knew for "approximately one week" before his April 29 surgery that there was a cancerous growth on his nose, his spokesman said, although he didn't mention it publicly until a day after the procedure. Reporters had asked on April 21, eight days before the operation, about the bandage on Brown's nose after a biopsy, and the first lady had denied it was cancer.

This week, administration officials declined to say whether the governor had the results of his biopsy on April 21. But they revealed that he was treated for the same type of cancer once before. In February 2008, he had a small spot of basal cell carcinoma removed near his right ear, according to spokesman Gil Duran.

"It's not a big dramatic thing, but definitely we did want to let people know," Duran said.

Although medical doctors say the governor's two cancer episodes are no cause for alarm, it's not helpful to his image. In 2008, GOP presidential nominee John McCain's skin cancer — melanoma, far more serious than Brown's affliction — helped his detractors plant seeds of doubt about the 71-year-old candidate's vitality.

Brown, at 73 the oldest governor in California history, has gone out of his way to show that his age and health are of no concern. He has challenged reporters to pull-up contests (and won), and he frequently mentions his trips to the gym. Weeks after being sworn into office, Brown took to Twitter to say he had "installed the pull-up bar in the office today. Staying in shape for all the heavy lifting to come."

The governor's cancer diagnosis was more than a medical inconvenience; it also threw a wrench into his political plans. The treatment he underwent included some reconstructive surgery where the cancer was removed. Brown subsequently canceled a major address at the state's Democratic Party convention in Sacramento and suspended his campaign to sell his budget to voters across the state at a critical time.

Some analysts dismissed talk of Brown's ailment as overblown. Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and an advisor to McCain in his 2000 presidential bid, said some in the media were "making a mountain out of a polyp."

But Rose McDermott, a political science fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, said Brown's reticence about divulging his medical details suggests that "he doesn't want it to look like he is impaired or about to undergo some procedure that might keep him from working."

She said a better way to avoid such political fallout is to be open about a relatively minor form of cancer before having surgery.

"When it looks like you are hiding something, people start to wonder," she said. "This was his moment to use the bully pulpit to educate people. Californians get a lot of exposure to the sun. They have a high risk for this."

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration refused for days to provide details about how the governor broke his leg on a ski slope in 2006. Reporters had to track down his skiing partner to learn that the governor had tripped over his pole while standing still.

The information blackout backfired on Schwarzenegger, prompting speculation that his steroid use earlier in life had left his bones brittle and susceptible to such injury. His administration ultimately released a statement from his orthopedic surgeon unequivocally denying that steroids were a factor.

Adam Mendelsohn, who was Schwarzenegger's communications director at the time, said the lesson learned is that the public expects details — whether they have a right to them or not — and it is in the officeholder's interest to provide as much information as possible.

"You don't want the media jumping to their own conclusions," he said.

Brown administration officials say they are done talking about the issue.

"We've said enough on this matter," Duran said.

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