Bush Aides Refuse Comment on Herpes Rumor

Aides to President Bush again today steadfastly refused to discuss a rumor swirling around Washington that the president has a mild form of oral herpes. This past weekend, while the president relaxed at his Texas ranch before hosting Easter celebrations at the White House, reports ricocheted inside the beltway that Bush has the common but socially and politically embarrassing disease.

As Bush was shuttled between the weekend�s events, reporters shouted questions regarding the troubling allegations, but Bush remained out of earshot of the journalist�s inquiries.

No one is certain where the rumor originated, but, to the chagrin of the president and his advisors, its sheer salaciousness has kept it alive. An assortment of anecdotes have buttressed the story, including a recent off-the-record claim that, during Bush�s Asian trip in February, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visibly winced at the sight of a cold sore on Bush�s upper lip. An official interpreter allegedly translated Koizumi�s comments as, "You should get that looked at."

The herpes rumor comes just as critics are quietly beginning to question the success of the war on terror, while also openly attacking Bush on other policies, for the first time since September 11. Since herpes is usually--but not necessarily accurately--associated with sexual activity, the White House is eager to squelch the rumor. But they face the conundrum of giving the story legitimacy and durability by addressing it at all.

According to experts, if Bush does, indeed, have herpes, it is most likely either simplex virus type one or two. "The vast majority of herpes cases are very mild and can be treated with antibiotics during outbreak season," according to Dr. Ashley Diamond, the herpes specialist at the Center for Disease Control. "Herpes is known to flare up in late winter, which is when clinics have a large influx of patients with oozing sores."

Bush�s off-the-record detractors coyly note that the president wore a band-aid on his face around this time last year.

Though the president currently has no outward signs of herpes, Diamond speculated that Bush�s notorious speaking difficulties may indicate that something is amiss. "His tendency to pronounce the letter s as sh could be the result of talking �around� a painful and recurring cold sore on his tongue. And some forms of herpes can also cause vestibular problems." Early this year, the president fell and bruised his face after briefly losing consciousness when a pretzel lodged in his windpipe.

Meanwhile, Democrats are performing a delicate balancing act of trying to stay above the fray while also keeping the issue alive in the media.

"While this may not be a life-or-death issue," one anonymous House leader noted, "it is imperative that the President of the United States be honest and direct with the people."

But prominent Republican Senator Trent Lott rebuked those that have helped perpetuate the herpes legend. "I am loathe to even comment on this so-called issue, but it angers me to no end that the employees of the people of this country--the Senators and Representatives and their staff--are gleefully playing politics with the president�s tongue while we are literally in a fight for our lives."

Even some Democrats say they wish the buzz would die down. "Whether or not the president has herpes and how he may have contracted it and who he may have given it to is really hitting below the belt," said one Democratic staffer. "We need to focus on the economy and the environment while supporting the president in the war on terror, warts and all."

Aside from the obvious perils of a wartime administration dealing with what it considers to be extraneous issues, the White House is desperately trying to avoid what it calls the "Clinton Effect." In his tumultuous eight-year tenure, President Clinton was constantly being taken "off message," which resulted in a diminished capacity to get his ideas to the public and his legislation through Congress.

Nonetheless, the health questions persist. Until recently, the administration had been able to control the flow of information. But, as so often happens in the world of hardball politics, the president�s opponents are whispering innuendos that quickly become, at worst, "facts," or, at best, topics that must be addressed, thereby lending them at least a small degree of credence.

The rumor also highlights what some suggest is a health crisis within the administration.

In addition to Vice President Cheney�s well-known heart problems, the president�s cabinet is allegedly rife with a surprising number of physical ailments. Christine Todd Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is known to suffer from narcolepsy and, as a result, has been kept out of the public spotlight for fear of unexpectedly nodding off.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is said to have Habito Habitus, often described as a distant cousin of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has a rare hormonal disorder that causes his feet to slowly shrink as his hands grow at an identical rate, while Education Secretary Spencer Abraham�s agoraphobia has emerged from remission.

But it is the presidential herpes story that is in the headlines.

Ironically, the herpes rumor reached its peak the same week that the president named his nominees for the two top federal health posts, Surgeon General and director of the National Institutes of Health. The White House is also a bit red-faced since this rumor arrived in the shadow of new funding for abstinence education, which was part of Bush�s long-standing theme of personal responsibility.

A word as loaded as "herpes" is one that the administration is eager to avoid. (In fact, "herpes" has only been uttered once by a sitting president, when Woodrow Wilson famously called France "a herpes sore on the face of Europe.") But political analysts agree that the president must eventually address the issue directly.

"Even if the voters don�t believe the rumor, he will gain nothing by pretending that it�s not out there circulating in the public consciousness," American University political science professor Adam Hesbergin said. "Any time Bush speaks strangely, bites the inside of his cheek or has an unusual bump on his face, the public will think, �herpes.� In this age of perpetual campaigning, that�s not a term that the president wants to be associated with."

But Republicans are not sitting idly by, prisoners to an alleged cold sore. Word has already begun to circulate that when Al Gore grew his infamous beard last year--which he recently shaved--it was to cover markings of an unknown origin.

David Turnley (davidturnley@hotmail.com) is a frequent contributor to AlterNet.

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