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Debate Takeaway: I'm Worried About McCain's Durability

11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Watching John McCain last night at the debate reminded me of the day I realized my father had gotten old. He had come to New Mexico for my daughter's high school graduation and we hadn't seen him for about a year. When he walked in the door he was stiff-legged and unsure, his head cocked to the side, taking in his surroundings.

Last night I felt the same way about McCain. Watching him in the town hall debate where he was meandering around and walking in that same stiff-legged manner that I had seen in my father, I had the sudden understanding of what people have been saying about him. He's 72. The oldest man to run for President. There are some things we need to talk about.

Now please understand, I have no bias against people of age. My father is still bright and funny and sends out emails of photos he takes with his digital camera. But as a strategist, it dawned on me that there was a question dangling out there that no one seems to be talking about. And as a country, we need to be prepared for anything.

Speaking in the hypothetical: If McCain were president, it's not the question of what happens if, God forbid, something should happen to him and he passes on. (We all know that means VP Palin would move up the corporate ladder). No, my question is what happens if he DOESN'T make that one-way trip. What happens if his mental capacities start to wane and he's still in office? What happens then?

The Alzheimers Association says as many as 5 million Americans are living with the disease and that it's the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. We've already had one president who had Alzheimers, Reagan, who many believe was afflicted with the disease while in office. Is it so unreasonable to consider the possibility that it might happen to another?

If McCain were to start to slip mentally, would we acknowledge that he had problems, or would that telegraph weakness to other nations? What if the mental problems were erratic? Would we brush "episodes" aside as normal forgetfulness and stress from the office? Could he "accidentally" say or do something that would set our country on a course for disaster? Who would take over? Who would be in the decision-making chair? Would we even know?

What if McCain were to suffer a stroke? It happened to President Woodrow Wilson, and he was only 62 (if I do my math correctly). Why couldn't it happen to McCain? Wilson's wife is considered to have been the "secret president" during the period of time that he was incapacitated. Would that mean that Cindy McCain would be making decisions for our country in domestic and foreign affairs? Would we even know?

You can perhaps see my concern. We don't even like to talk about mental issues, erratic behavior and mood disorders, much less admit to them. How would we handle a president who was showing signs of these conditions?

We know that the press didn't talk about President Roosevelt's polio. Certainly that was a different place and time, but would the same curtain of protectionism come down on a president exhibiting signs of mental dysfunction? Would we want the world to know that we had a president who "wasn't all there?" And would we even know?

I don't know the answers. In fact, I have never even thought about it before. But watching the debate last night started me asking the questions.