Neither Bachmann nor any other 2012 candidate would get that kind of pass today. By the same token, no candidate should be subjected to anonymous media rumormongering about her health or medical fitness.
Migraine headaches are a uniquely painful misery, as I can attest from long personal experience, but they are not stroke or heart disease or polio or Alzheimer's. At their worst, migraine attacks can involve hours of throbbing head pain, as well as blind spots and other visual abnormalities, intense nausea, chills, and tears streaming from one eye. "That no one dies of migraine," Joan Didion wrote in a famous essay, "seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing." Such attacks terrified me when I was young; I vividly remember wondering, as an 11- or 12-year-old, if I was dying of brain cancer. Not until I was in college did I learn that my agonies had a name, and that I wasn't the only one to experience them.
More than 35 million Americans suffer from occasional or chronic migraine; many, Bachmann included, control their symptoms with medication. Far from popping "pills wherever she goes," however, she takes medicine only when she has an attack. According to Congress's attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, Bachmann's migraines "occur infrequently" and are helped by sumatriptan, a standard drug for relieving the dilation of blood vessels that causes migraine pain, and odansetron, an anti-nausea drug.
In my case, age, not medicine, seems to have been the best therapy; when my odometer passed 40, the migraine attacks started growing less severe. But even before then, migraine wasn't a paralyzing disability. The headaches hurt like hell, but they didn't keep me from getting an education or holding a job. I don't recommend giving a speech or going on TV while having a migraine, but I've managed to do both. I imagine Bachmann has too. Her migraines plainly haven't slowed her impressive rise in national politics, or kept her from setting the GOP primary field on fire. If she were "incapacitated" on a weekly basis, it's unlikely she'd have come so far, so fast.
So is it news that a would-be president once complained of migraine attacks that are "paroxysms of excruciating pain" -- headaches that "came on every day at sunrise and never left me till sunset"? No -- not unless it's news that Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words, suffered migraines. Ulysses Grant did, too.
Could Michele Bachmann become the next US president? I have no idea. But this much I do know: She wouldn't be the first one to live with migraine headaches.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).