Analysis: Wu’s mental health and the public’s right to know

Analysis: Wu’s mental health and the public’s right to know
U.S. Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., speaks at a luncheon in Hillsboro, Ore., Monday, March, 7, 2011. Wu is reaching out to key constituents in his district as he tries to position himself for re-election amid questions about his mental health that led to the resignations of several staff members. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

PORTLAND, Ore. - In an exclusive poll conducted for KATU News by SurveyUSA and released last week, the majority of the respondents said the public has a right to know about Democrat U.S. Rep. David Wu’s mental health after revelations that his erratic behavior led to the departure of key staff members. But the poll also found voters split on the issue along party lines.

In the poll, 56 percent of the respondents said the public has a right to know about Wu’s mental health while 39 percent said he’s entitled to privacy, but among Republicans that number was 79 percent while only 39 percent of Democrats said the public has the right to know. 

So far Wu has declined to detail his mental health condition or say what medications he is taking, but he has said he is taking them and is receiving counseling.

Willamette Week and The Oregonian were the first to report on the exodus of key staffers after they became concerned about Wu’s behavior and urged him to seek psychiatric help shortly before the November 2010 election.

Oregon State University political science professor Bill Lunch said the poll’s findings didn’t really surprise him.

“In a situation like this, essentially, the response is going to be partisan – not entirely – but very largely,” he said.

By and large the public uses party affiliation to guide their responses because they don’t have the time to really learn about what’s going on.

“Most people have their own jobs to do and lots of other things to worry about,” Lunch said. “So they use shortcuts. One of the most powerful shortcuts, as long as anyone has been studying these kinds of things, is party affiliation.”

He said it is likely that if Wu was a Republican, the results would be flipped.

Len Bergstein, a public affairs consultant and president of Northwest Strategies in Portland, said it’s not so much about partisanship as about what anyone would do if they found themselves in the same situation.

“I think the instinct of a Democrat or a Republican is to try and close ranks around information and try and snuff out any more stories,” he said. “It’s the narrative that the incumbent wants to compose of the situation to shut down the constant drumbeat of information that keeps the story alive. I think both parties under the same circumstances will have the same instincts.”

Wu’s spokesman, Erik Dorey, said the congressman is concerned more about helping Oregonians than about the politics.

“Congressman Wu’s focus is not on the latest poll or the 2012 election,” Dorey said. “He has an important job to do and he’s working very hard to deliver for Oregonians.”

Should the public know Wu’s mental health condition?

Bergstein said if the public official’s behavior calls into question his ability to do his job, then the public has a right to know about the official’s mental health.

“I think people have the right to know an awful lot about a public official’s behavior particularly if he thrusts himself into the light with very, very weird behavior,” he said. “I think the public has the right to know whether that person can in fact discharge the duties he was elected to have.”

Lunch, however, didn’t go that far but said any expectation of privacy public officials think they have really flies in the face of reality.

“In the age of the Internet, YouTube, ubiquitous handheld video cameras, whatever the privacy expectations of public officials should be, the reality is that they have less of it than they used to,” he said. “I think on balance subjecting public officials to scrutiny on the basis of personal behavior that may have nothing to do with their performance in office is probably not a terrific idea because it will discourage people who otherwise might be very capable public servants from running.”

After the stories about Wu’s erratic behavior broke in January and February, the congressman did a string of local television interviews. In an interview with KATU News on Feb. 26, Wu said he’s entitled to more privacy than the president.

“I’m not the president of the United States with my finger on the nuclear trigger, so I think that a congressman, even a congressman, gets some sphere of privacy,” he said.

Dorey said the same thing last week but then essentially said the level of privacy public officials should have depends on which branch of government they work. The executive has less of an expectation of privacy than the legislator.

“If you’re a governor with control over the executive … that’s a different story,” he said. “But as a congressional representative, (Wu) has a responsibility to be forthright with his constituents that’s he’s able and capable of doing his job, and he has emphatically said that he is going to do so and is already working hard for Oregonians.”

Willamette Week and The Oregonian have reported that Wu’s bizarre behavior included sending e-mails to staffers in the voice of his children, sending a picture of himself to staff members dressed in a tiger suit, giving angry speeches and talking his way inside the secure portion of Portland International Airport.

Asked whether there were any more incidents that may have contributed to the staff exodus, Dorey responded, “You’ve read what’s in the papers. He’s answered the tough questions. He’s been forthright with his constituents, and his primary focus is on showing his constituents that he’s the best representative for the job.”

While Wu has not identified what medications he is currently taking, he has revealed that two years ago he was taking the sleep-aid drug Ambien and a generic form of Valium for stress and anxiety. He told The Associated Press last month that he had a bad reaction to the drugs and ended up in the hospital.

Dorey said Wu revealed what medications he was taking then but not the ones he’s taking now because “that was a specific medical issue that he dealt with two years ago, and he does believe he does deserve some measure of privacy on his specific medical regimen today.”

As far as Wu’s political future is concerned, both Lunch and Bergstein said it’s too early to tell.

“The key to this is if the level of support in one’s own party goes down, the key – if he’s going to survive – is sustaining a reasonable level of support among Democrats,” Lunch said.

Bergstein, however, said KATU’s poll showed a weakening of support for Wu.

“It’s a profile of a highly vulnerable incumbent,” he said. People who may be looking to take his seat in Congress “lick their chops when they see someone who’s not doing really well in certain demographic groups and certain age groups.”

Dorey said Wu plans to meet with his constituents in the coming weeks and months to assure them he can serve them well.