Privacy and Transparency

We all favor personal privacy, as we do governmental openness and transparency. What happens when the two ideals conflict, and a decision must be made about which right prevails? In my book, In Confidence: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure (Yale University Press, 2009), I examine medical and personal privacy claims, and the appropriate instances when one right must defer to another.

I report this because the current political campaign raises important questions about when a candidate’s medical and tax returns should be made public. All candidates concede some right of public access to their otherwise private records, but they manipulate what, when, how much. That makes no sense.

Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) medical records and his wife’s tax records are an example of the conundrum. McCain’s medical history is long and contains information about serious medical problems; but he set limited conditions under which the media had access to it. The media went along with them, however complaining. Thus, a serious feature of the presidential campaign has not been fully examined.

Sen. McCain is not the only candidate (or president) who hid his medical conditions. But he would be the oldest president to take office if he is elected. To highlight the issue, while there are real and serious questions about Sen. McCain’s serious, but unexamined, medical problems, his vice presidential colleague is by most analyses ill-prepared to take over as president.

As historian Robert Dalleck suggested in The Washington Post yesterday:

Politician’s political problems are their own. Their health problems belong to all of us, and if candidates don’t like that, they need not run for president. It was and is the public’s right to have the fullest possible information about a potential president’s physical condition. If you want to be the most powerful person in the world, you will also have to be one of the least private. Voters deserve to know the full picture — no ifs, ands or buts.



My proposal: A federal law requiring that any presidential candidate who does not open all his medical and his family’s tax records may not participate in the national debates covered by media, or have access to federal funds to campaign.




Visit www.RonaldGoldfarb.com.