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Mitch and Joe, tell us more

Two of the most important leaders in the country are over 80. Yet, we know very little about the state of their health, including their brains. Al Cross says we deserve more.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell extends a hand to President Joe Biden in Covington at a celebration of funding for the Brent Spence Bridge project, Jan. 4, 2023. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Michael Clubb)

Mitch McConnell, who has a policy of saying little, is exactly nine months older than Joe Biden, who says too much and will be 81 on Nov. 20. The president’s rambling makes some people worry about his health, but we know a lot more about it than we do about the Senate Republican leader’s, even after recent freeze-ups forced him to reveal more than ever. But in both their cases, it’s still not quite enough.

Fact Box
Sen. Mitch McConnell was born Feb. 20, 1942. He is the 14th oldest member of Congress, which has 538 members at full strength. The sixth oldest is the longest-serving member of the House, Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, whose 86th birthday is Dec. 31. (Rankings from The Washington Post)

The need to know is different, because their jobs are different. Biden is an all-but-declared candidate for re-election by all voters next year; McConnell is almost halfway through his seventh six-year term as a senator, and his recent neurological episodes probably ensure that he will not face Kentucky’s voters again. But he is also serving a two-year term as Senate party leader, where the voters are his fellow Republican senators, who can keep a closer eye on him than any Kentucky voter except his wife, Elaine Chao.

At least publicly, most GOP senators seemed satisfied with the explanation McConnell gave in a private lunch: a public statement from Capitol physician Brian Monahan saying neurologists had found no evidence of a stroke or seizure, and his own statement that the two freezes caught on camera were the only ones he has had.

But why would McConnell freeze up when appearing before reporters, once while beginning a statement in the Capitol and once while taking questions in Northern Kentucky? And what caused these episodes five weeks apart?

Fox News reporter Chad Pegram, on whom McConnell called to open the Capitol presser, asked the right questions: “Can you tell is what is afflicting you, and describe, characterize, what is the level of transparency that the people of Kentucky deserve to hear about your condition?”

McConnell said, “I think Dr. Monahan covered – ”

Pegram interjected, “We’d like to hear it from you.”

McConnell replied, “I know, you are hearing from me. I think Dr. Monahan covered the subject fully. You had a chance to read it. I don’t have anything to add to it, and I think it should answer any reasonable question.

Pegram pressed: “He ruled things out. He didn’t tell us what it might have been. Do you know what it is?”

McConnell chuckled lightly, turned away and pointed to CNN’s Manu Raju.

“You’ve had all these evaluations,” Raju said. “What have doctors said is the precise medical reason for those two freezeups?”

McConnell replied, “What Dr. Monahan’s report addressed was concerns people might have that some things had happened to me did happen. Well, they didn’t, and really, I have nothing to add to that. I think he pretty well covered the subject.”

Asked if he planned to retire anytime soon, McConnell chortled and said “I have no announcements to make on that subject.” When the reporter started another question, McConnell interrupted with an announcement after all: ”I’m gonna finish my term as leader and I’m gonna finish my Senate term. Thank you.” Then he stepped away from the microphone.

That was a typical McConnell brushoff, but the McConnell in the video of the presser is not the sharp, fluid Mitch McConnell we saw before the fall and concussion that kept him away from the Senate for four months this year. We need to hear from his neurologists, not a doctor whose office has a reputation, deserved or not, for protecting members, and who used the imprecise medical term “lightheadedness” in his letter to the senator.

We did hear from an ophthalmologist: Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who was a McConnell ally only when it served their mutual purposes. He separated himself even further by doubting his seatmate’s explanation and venturing an opinion on a patient he had not examined (as far as we know): “This looks like a seizure.”

And we heard from another physician in the Senate, Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, on “Meet the Press” Sunday. Asked about Paul’s statement, he said, “I’m a gastroenterologist; he’s an ophthalmologist. We’re not the internist who’s doing the physical exam, and you have to accept the limitations of training.”

Cassidy said he has enough health information about McConnell, who “has handled it perfectly,” but then said members of Congress and the president should release their neurological information.

The latest detailed report from Biden’s doctor, in February, mentioned no brain-related issues. It came 15 months after the previous report; at Biden’s age, more frequent reports are needed.

McConnell, who has always been private about his health, is trying to keep the government open and keep helping Ukraine at the same time he is not only dealing with health issues but questions about them. And he would like to rid his party of President Trump. It’s a heavy load for a leader struggling to hold on. Let’s wish him well.

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Sen. Mitch McConnell was born Feb. 20, 1942. He is the 14th oldest member of Congress, which has 538 members at full strength. The sixth oldest is the longest-serving member of the House, Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, whose 86th birthday is Dec. 31. (Rankings from The Washington Post)



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Al Cross

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and a professor at the University of Kentucky. He served as a political reporter and commentator at the Courier-Journal for 26 years.

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