As Americans kick off Memorial Day weekend, Sen. John McCain today will release 400 pages of his medical records to a handpicked group of reporters who can neither walk out with the documents nor photocopy them, illustrating the campaign's sensitivity about the 71-year-old candidate's age and health.
The health of the presumed Republican presidential nominee, who bears large scars on his face and neck from surgery in 2000 to remove an invasive form of skin cancer, has been a question throughout the early part of the campaign.
For more than a year, the four-term senator has repeatedly promised to release his recent medical records but has not done so.
The McCain campaign has selected a few news organizations to review the records today in a conference room at the CopperWynd Resort and Club in Fountain Hills, Ariz., near the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale.
Reporters from all five major news networks - CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox - will be allowed to take notes from the records, as will wire reporters from the Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg news agencies. Just two print newspapers will be among the pool: The Washington Post and the Arizona Republic.
McCain campaign officials said yesterday that the high level of interest in the records meant that they had to limit access by reporters.
"We had to do it at the Mayo Clinic, and the doctors there probably didn't want 200 reporters running around," senior McCain adviser Charlie Black said. "It's not a perfect situation, but it's the best available."
No independent doctors will be allowed to examine the records, although McCain officials said yesterday that most networks were flying their medical correspondents, some of whom are doctors, into Phoenix last night.
The candidate's age - at 72, he would be the oldest president ever to take office - and especially his health threaten to become campaign issues. At 46, his likely opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, is young enough to be his son, and has highlighted his health by doffing his shirt at the beach and sprinting up and down a basketball court - all in front of news cameras.
The Obama campaign insists that it will not make age an issue in the campaign, and the one-term senator from Illinois faces the same danger Walter Mondale did in 1984 when he sought to portray President Reagan as too old for the demanding job of president. In a memorable debate line, Mr. Reagan, 73, said of the 56-year-old Democrat: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The records dump, reminiscent of those during the presidency of Bill Clinton, is taking place as Americans head into a three-day weekend, and just days after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, was diagnosed with a grave form of brain cancer.
Mr. Black said the campaign's communications director and others have been working on the release "for weeks," and that it is not timed to reduce the impact of whatever the records contain.
Democrats aren't buying that.
"This is not coincidental timing; we're not that dumb," said Democratic consultant Bud Jackson. "This is a public relations tactic to release them on a Friday before a summer holiday, which is going to result in probably the lowest viewership and readership possible."
For his part, Mr. McCain, told reporters last Friday that they will be underwhelmed by the medical findings.
"There are going to be no surprises," he said aboard his campaign bus on a trip to West Virginia. His doctors "have told me that everything's fine," he said.
The medical records released today will cover the years 2000 to 2008. In 1999, during his first campaign for president, the senator released 1,500 pages of in-depth medical and psychiatric records, some collected during a Navy project to gauge the health of former prisoners of war.
Mr. McCain spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, where he twice attempted suicide. He suffers long-term effects from his incarceration: He broke both arms and a leg when he ejected from his plane, and prison doctors failed to properly set his broken bones. He cannot comb his own hair because he cannot lift his arms above shoulder height.
McCain biographies also portray a hard-living Navy man who drank heartily and chain-smoked throughout his youth and into middle age. He jokes that he still craves cigarettes.
The Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, one of the most highly rated medical facilities in the country, was where Mr. McCain underwent nearly six hours of surgery after he was diagnosed with Stage 2A melanoma, a form of cancer that kills one-third of sufferers within 10 years. Doctors incised a dime-sized discolored blotch from his left temple but also made an incision down his left cheek to remove lymph nodes in his neck. Later tests showed that the cancer had not spread there.
Mr. McCain's left cheek is still puffy and laced with the large scar. He jokes on the campaign trail that "I'm older than dirt, and I've more scars than Frankenstein."
But Mr. McCain still often tires out reporters half his age from his dawn-to-well-past-dusk schedule. He suffers from few maladies: His aides say he takes a low-dose aspirin daily to reduce the risk of heart attack, takes Vytorin to keep his cholesterol level (155) low, and occasionally takes a Claritin pill for allergies.
Dr. Connie Mariano, who ran the White House medical unit from 1992 to 2001, said men of Mr. McCain's age have a primary concern. "No. 1 is neurologic: Is there any evidence of early dementia, of memory loss?"
"As everybody gets older, they run the risk of dementia," she said. "People want to know, will this candidate survive four years in office or even eight years?"
Whenever the issue of age arises during a town hall meeting with voters, Mr. McCain points to his 96-year-old mother, Roberta, as proof that he comes from hearty genetic stock.
"If there's any question about any age problem we might have in this campaign, there's my genes," Mr. McCain said at a campaign stop in Iowa in January. "Last Christmas, she went to France. She landed in Paris and wanted to rent a car. They told her she was too old so she bought one. Way to go, Mom."
On the other hand, his father suffered a fatal heart attack at 70; his grandfather died at 61.
"Just 'cuz your mama lived to be 100. You know, you're a guy," Dr. Mariano said with a laugh.