The media reaction to Sen. Tim Johnson's recent health emergency was annoying, inappropriate, and -- for the first several days -- inaccurate.
Every initial story about the South Dakota senator's illness focused more on the fact that a Republican governor would name any replacement than it did on what happened to him and how he was faring. Not only did this rudely reduce Sen. Johnson to a cipher who is more important as one of the people who make up the Democratic majority than he is a human being, but every story left the incorrect impression that he would be replaced immediately if he didn't get well and even that he could be replaced temporarily.
In fact, the governor can only replace him if he dies or if he resigns. And he doesn't have to resign, even if he's too ill to return to his duties when the Senate reconvenes. Senators do not have to step down because of illness, even if they're seriously incapacitated. History is rife with examples of senators who were out for extended periods due to their health and others who were barely able to make it to the floor for a vote.
Further, there are no "temporary" replacements. The Senate does without any members who can't be there.
The only initial report on Sen. Johnson that got it right wasn't in the mainstream press, but on the blog Balkinization. Sandy Levinson, a constitutional scholar who thinks we should address ways of removing disabled senators, explained it clearly:
In any event, so long as Johnson is alive, he remains the Senator from South Dakota and the Democrats will have a 50-49 majority of those present and voting in early January. This means that under no circumstances, whatever the seriousness of his condition, should he be viewed as "resigning" his seat, given the political realities of the situation.And it took a couple of days before even supposedly politically astute publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post got it right. And they're still more interested in the political ramifications than they are in Sen. Johnson's health, as witnessed by today's Post story, which focuses on the wild and wooly world of South Dakota politics.
I realize that right now most of the news about Sen. Johnson is some variation on "wait and see." But health problems suffered by public figures also provide an opportunity to educate the public. Since Sen. Johnson had stroke-like symptoms, but did not, in fact, have a stroke, articles on the aneurysms and the many other kinds of brain injuries that can occur in seemingly healthy individuals would be much more valuable than all this political speculation.
Ironically, the best words on the subject came from Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican who is posed to become the minority whip in the new Senate. The Washington Post quotes Lott:
My expectation and hope is that Tim will recover fully and come back and we'll go to work. You know, I'd like to be in the majority, but I don't want to do it that way.We here on In This Moment also wish Sen. Johnson a speedy recovery.