Not many people remember Senator Paul Tsongas these days, but if he'd achieved his ambition of being nominated to run for the Democrats in the 1992 US presidential election, he might have caused an even bigger scandal than the person who eventually became the nominee, Bill Clinton.
During the campaign, Tsongas was informed that he had suffered a recurrence of his non-Hodgkins lymphoma. However, he continued to campaign on the basis that he was healthy, and on several occasions referred to himself as cancer-free.
It was only after he had withdrawn from the campaign that the true extent of his illness, which killed him a few years later, came to light. Had he won the Democrat nomination and gone on to defeat President Bush in the election, he would have died in office and been known forever for the blatant way in which he had lied to the American people about his health.
Tsongas's case might be an unusual one, but it does suggest that politicians running for national office, or who are in government, need to be much more honest about whether they are actually up to the job.
Their policies are debated and argued about, but their ability to physically implement them is assumed. For people whose actions and decisions have such a profound effect on our lives, that's not good enough. In the area of health, senior politicians, such as Brian Lenihan, should waive some of their right to privacy.
Voters are entitled to know whether their government ministers are ill and, if so, how ill.
At the moment, politicians can pretty much decide what information comes out about them, which is fine if they don't want to tell us where they went on their holidays, but isn't if it impacts on something that can affect their performance in office.
Brian Lenihan has been more upfront than many before him, but his interview on the News At One last week raised as many questions as it provided answers.
A system whereby senior politicians were obliged to make their medical records available on a regular basis and to announce if they have been diagnosed with a serious illness would have advantages for everyone.
The public would receive regular information about the capacity of their leaders to do their very well-paid jobs, while politicians would know exactly what information they had to release and when.
Not unimportantly, it would also help them to avoid a situation where media organisations played 'gotcha' with their health problems, as TV3 did with Lenihan and his family last Christmas.
THE issue of how the media reports on the health of politicians is hugely complex.
Obviously, there can be no return to the days when the US media obliged Franklin D Roosevelt by only photographing him from the waist up – ignoring the fact that he was in a wheelchair – or when Fleet Street agreed to cover up Winston Churchill's stroke of 1953.
But politicians, despite being in public office, do have a right to a certain degree of privacy.
Finding a happy medium between the public's right to know and basic decency, whereby a prominent politician is allowed the time to come to terms with a diagnosis and the space to deal with the illness afterwards, is decidedly tricky.
The brilliant Channel 4 biopic of former northern secretary Mo Mowlam didn't shy away from the issue. Mowlam kept secret the fact that her brain tumour was malignant because she knew it would cost her a cabinet position in Tony Blair's new government. She went on to play a key role in the negotiation of the Good Friday agreement. But the film Mo features a scene where an oncologist tells Mowlam that her cognitive behaviour and judgment are likely to be affected by the tumour. "And in your job you are taking decisions of life and death consequences," he warns.
And that in a nutshell is why the health of our politicians is a matter of public interest. But Mowlam's experience also captures the complexity of this issue. There is a very strong argument that she should have told Blair the full extent of her illness, regardless of the personal consequences. But against that she coped extremely well in her role as northern secretary – attracting huge affection with her warmth and honesty. There is even a case to be made that her illness freed her of the shackles of political convention and helped break down the barriers that so obviously existed between the northern parties.
Ideally, it would come down to trust. The most desirable solution is that politicians suffering from an illness would be given time to get their heads around it and decide on the best future course before revealing the news to the general public. As long as it wasn't impacting on their ability to perform their duties, it would be left up to them and their doctors to decide on whether they were fit to continue in office.
But, as the Mowlam case illustrates, all sorts of other factors come into play – not least the fact that politicians, no more than any of us, are not necessarily the best judges of what they can or cannot do. The truth is that there can be no hard and fast rules. No two politicians are the same and no two illnesses are the same. So it follows that no two politicians with illnesses are the same. Each case has to be judged and dealt with on its own merits.