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No privacy for a president

IT is tempting to think that George Bush, Jack Kemp, Gary Hart, Mario Cuomo, and all the other presidential hopefuls might have thought it over in recent days and decided not to go forward with their campaigns. The lure of presidential office being what it is, this is probably a fanciful thought.

But most men, pondering the clinically detailed reporting of the President's surgery, might be forgiven for deciding they would never submit their own private lives to such national and international scrutiny.

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The reality is that presidents no longer have any private lives to speak of, and abdicate their right to privacy when they assume office. Presidents must bare their finances and make public their tax forms; a family tiff with a son or daughter is chronicled by the press in detail; reporters demand to know whether the President dyes his hair, and how much he pays for his wife's dresses.

And, as we have seen in recent days, when the President is ill, the public is kept abreast of his condition in extraordinary detail. White House reporters and anchormen toss complicated medical terminology back and forth; what Mrs. Reagan said to Mr. Reagan before and after surgery is flashed around the world; diagrams show what was done to the presidential insides and how; doctors and surgeons offer secondhand punditry on TV. On one network there was even a life-sized dummy, whose multicolored plastic innards were removed piece by piece.

It is probably all inevitable, given the importance of the presidency, and the health of the incumbent. To limit the flow of information could mask a presidential deficiency -- and that has been done in the past. Certainly we do not want to emulate those communist societies where the health of the leadership is a closed book to ordinary citizens and announcements can be delayed and orchestrated even when leaders pass from the scene.

Yet Ronald Reagan must have yearned for the relative privacy that surrounded his older brother's surgery, for the identical problem, just 11 days before the President went into hospital. Neil Reagan said he had the identical medical treatment and was back home in five days. Not much publicity surrounded his hospital visit.

Of course, Neil Reagan is not the president of the United States, and the health of presidents is of legitimate public interest. President John F. Kennedy, at one of his press conferences, had to explain the reason for a Band-Aid on one of his fingers. When President Gerald Ford was a little hoarse on election day, his spokesman, Ron Nessen, had to deliver the trivia:

Reporters: Is this cause for concern? Nessen: No, but the presidential physician is treating him with steam inhalation and tea and honey.

Reporters: Is he taking medication?

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Nessen: There is some Vicks in the steam.

Reporters: What method is being used to produce the steam?

Nessen: I don't know, but I can add that the President is using a nebulizer which is putting water droplets into his throat.

Reporters: What kind of water droplets?

Nessen: Warm water droplets.

Reporters: Is the President wearing a suit?

Nessen: Yes.

Reporters: Is it a leisure suit?

Nessen: No, a business suit.

And so it went on.

President Reagan's hospital visit was different. It involved major surgery and the public, of course, has a right to know how he is faring. Although one wonders whether most citizens would have demanded the graphic detail that seemed to dominate the dinner-time television newscasts.

The fact is that we make life hard for our presidents, and why George Bush would give up the seclusion of Maine, or Gary Hart the quietude of Colorado's mountains, for a presidential whirl in the scorching public spotlight must be a mystery to many lesser men.

Thank goodness there are strong men willing to take the job and endure the indignities that go with it.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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