We are in a transparency mania, but a rather selective sort of one. Bill Clinton, who chose not to tell the truth while under oath and as president, says he is “perplexed” that Mitt Romney did not offer more candor by providing more than a single year’s tax returns. Yet neither Jimmy Carter nor Ronald Reagan released more than one year’s returns. The reformist John McCain released just two.
True, the 2004 Democratic candidate, John Kerry, offered some 20 years of returns; but that gesture meant almost nothing because his billionaire wife, Teresa, supplied the vast majority of the funds that fueled Kerry’s opulent recreational lifestyle — and she kept largely quiet about where her money was banked and invested. Few in the press praised George W. Bush for releasing nine years of tax returns. Even then one could argue “So what?” — given that likely potential candidates can in advance massage their returns through making a bit less money, taking fewer deductions, and giving a little more to charity as they envision a political race in a few years, while incumbent officials usually have open-and-shut government salaries and simple deductions.
If we are truly in the age of transparency, then disclosure of medical records seems just as important. After all, the republic has had a checkered record of presidents failing to disclose their illnesses both before and during their tenure. Woodrow Wilson suffered from hypertension, but concealed that ailment from the public through two elections — until a debilitating stroke left him incapacitated during his second term. Franklin Roosevelt never disclosed the full extent of his paralysis, his weak cardiovascular condition, or a number of other major health problems — all of which predated his presidency and would affect his performance while in office. The tanned, youthful John Kennedy was far sicker than we knew; full disclosure about his health might have made his pasty-faced rival, Dick Nixon, seem robust in comparison. In 1992 Paul Tsongas probably knew of his cancer’s recurrence but did not disclose it during the Democratic primaries.
Given all that history, and the media demands in 2008 that the septuagenarian cancer survivor John McCain should release thousands of pages of medical records for journalists’ perusal, why did not Barack Obama simply release his medical records? The Left had always trumpeted the desire for “full disclosure” and was probably right in wanting McCain to assure us that he was hale; but, again, why was Obama given a complete pass?
Most of us have had to release our undergraduate transcripts either when being considered for a job or when applying for post-baccalaureate education. Yet Barack Obama apparently does not wish the information about his college career known either. Is he afraid that we will learn that his Occidental and Columbia transcripts were as dismal as was John McCain’s Naval Academy ranking, near the bottom of his class? But whereas the media frowned upon McCain’s carousing undergraduate days, suggesting that they might prove a harbinger of an unpredictable presidency, they were content with blissful ignorance about Obama’s serial drug use as an undergraduate.
There is some reason to worry about Obama’s own transparency, given that he is the least vetted sitting president since John Kennedy, whose vita continues to expand in unwelcome ways nearly half a century after his death. A sympathetic biographer has revealed that the main incidents in President Obama’s life, as told in his own memoir, were largely exaggerated, if not fabricated altogether. We are still perplexed why Barack Obama for over decade permitted Kenya to be listed as his birthplace on his literary agent’s biography of him. Obama has not been forthcoming about his complex two-decade relationship with the odious Reverend Jeremiah Wright. We know now that the president was far more intimate with ex-terrorist Bill Ayers and felon Tony Rezko than he ever let on.
When questions come up about the president’s reluctance to release medical records or college transcripts, or the evidence that he was a fabulist in matters of his own autobiography, the Obama campaign’s defense is essentially that his three and a half years as president have established that he is competent; such past questions, his defenders say, are rendered irrelevant by his present performance. But neither the media nor Obama’s supporters extend that allowance to Romney, who, as head of the 2002 winter Olympic games and as a successful governor of Massachusetts, long ago proved that his lucrative business career had not led to malfeasance but rather to fiscal acumen put to good service for the state.
So how much do we wish to detour from the issues to know about the background of either candidate Romney or incumbent Obama? Some sort of compromise seems in order. If transparency is really what the public demands, and if these issues distract attention from a necessary debate over the economy, then in bipartisan fashion let us now demand full disclosure from both candidates: ten years of income tax returns from each, full and complete access for journalists to all known medical records of each, and complete release of all undergraduate and graduate grades, test scores, and other records.
Romney may not wish to release a decade’s worth of careful tax planning and investment that might reveal him to be more concerned about making money and keeping most of it than about outsourcing or foreign bank accounts. Obama may likewise be embarrassed over a prior undisclosed ailment, or a relatively unimpressive Occidental or Columbia record that would belie his media reputation as the “smartest” man ever to serve as president in the nation’s history. Perhaps for much of August we might hear that Romney had a gargantuan Swiss bank account, or more bankers in the Caribbean than we had surmised. Maybe Obama smoked more marijuana than he has admitted to or received lots of Cs and even some Ds in International Relations — grades that would make it almost impossible for most students to get into Harvard Law School.
But such embarrassments would pass by the end of the summer, and we, the wiser, could move on to the campaign debate over the economy. In short, it is time either to demand that both candidates put up everything — or to shut up and return to the debate over two radically different visions of how to fix an ailing America.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.