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Leading the Way 

Ex-Gov. Buddy Roemer says diabetes 'made me a better leader.'

Former Louisiana Gov. and U.S. Rep. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer, celebrated more than his 58th birthday on Oct. 4. Roemer has now lived nearly half of his life -- including four years as governor and eight years as a congressman -- with a potentially fatal form of diabetes. And the Shreveport area native with an MBA from Harvard tells the story of his diagnosis as if spinning a country yarn.

It was 1973. He was 29 or 30 years old, he says.

He had been elected as a delegate to the 1973 Louisiana Constitutional Convention. "The early symptoms were classic diabetes symptoms, thirst -- constant thirst -- weight loss," Roemer recalls in a telephone interview punctuated by drawling chuckles and a clipped north Louisiana accent. "I lost about a pound a day for a week until I finally went to the doctor." Roemer was told he has Type I, or juvenile diabetes, a rapidly developing disorder that usually destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. The disorder is more commonly found in children ages 10 to 16 and first appears in adults under 35.

"Without regular injections of insulin, the sufferer lapses into a coma and dies," according to the American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine. However, the AMA adds that "with modern treatment and sensible self-monitoring, almost all diabetics can look forward to a normal life."

The diagnosis gave Roemer a new perspective. "Before that, there was nothing wrong with me," he recalls. "I was just a loudmouth. After diagnosis, I understood things could happen."

Roemer says no one in his family had diabetes when he was diagnosed in 1973 and no one has developed it since. "I asked the doctors what could I do with my life," Roemer recalls. "And they said, 'Well, you're not restricted. Just don't take a job with a lot of stress in it.'"

He chose Louisiana politics, arguably anathema to a healthy diet and stress-free lifestyle. (He campaigned for Edwin Edwards in the early '70s.) And in 1975, Roemer managed the successful campaign of J. Kelly Nix for state superintendent of education, then an elected office.

John Hill, now capitol bureau chief for Gannett News, recalls a frightening event during the mid-70s, before Roemer ran for office. Hill, then a reporter for the Shreveport Times, said he and Roemer were "solving the problems of the world" over cigarettes and coffee at the state capitol coffee shop, when Roemer suddenly realized he was late to catch a plane.

Driving alone to the airport, Roemer apparently suffered an attack of hypoglycemia (too little glucose), which can lead to confusion, dizziness and even unconsciousness. "He drove onto the interstate at a high rate of speed going the wrong way ... and into oncoming traffic," Hill remembers. Roemer eventually stopped his car, safe and unhurt. Hill's newspaper editors called him saying that Roemer had been stopped on suspicion of drunk driving. "I said, 'That's impossible -- I was just with him,'" Hill recalls. "'There's no way he got drunk. I was with him drinking coffee.'" Roemer's friends argued that the incident was related to his diabetes. Skeptics cried cover-up, but Hill's account supported the diabetes version.

Roemer confirms the incident and says afterwards he worked harder to manage his glucose levels, watch his diet and get adequate exercise. "The trick is to balance the blood chemistry with your activity," he says. "It is an ongoing disease and ongoing balancing act. You never say, 'Well, I got that behind me.' There's always the next meal. The next [insulin] shot. The next day."

In 1978, Roemer ran for Congress but lost. He tried again in 1980 and won the first of two four-year terms. Before running, he consulted his doctors, who did not object.

"I was a full-fledged diabetic before I got to Congress," he says proudly. He has a vague recollection of urging fellow representatives not to approve proposed legislation that would have discriminated against diabetics.

"I remember speaking before the U.S. Congress and telling them I took two to four insulin shots every day -- that they never would have known it unless I told them."

Even in Congress, Roemer acknowledges, he occasionally struggled to manage his glucose levels. He suffered several hypoglycemic attacks from low-blood sugar. "That's not unusual for a diabetic," he says, citing three or four episodes.

Did he miss any votes in Congress as a result? "I don't think I did," Roemer recalls, then jokes: "The only time I missed votes was when I was running for governor."

On a serious note, he adds: "Diabetes never affected anything I did or thought or performed. My voting record in the Congress reflected my district and my values."

In 1987, Roemer ran for governor. He won when Edwin Edwards withdrew after the primary election. Roemer said he suffered no hypoglycemic attacks as governor, and three capitol correspondents who covered his administration generally agree that Roemer was an otherwise healthy man in his early 40s.

"I think governor was easier in a sense that I was so much more carefully regulated and watched," Roemer says.

The biggest problem facing a diabetic is the need for rest, he says, and being governor of Louisiana was a "full-time, non-stop job, or at least the way I did it. "

Some days, he would need to rest alone for a few hours "because any diabetic will tell you that your emotions run hot and cold, given the sugar content of your blood. ... It caused me to have to slow down a little at times. It caused me to get too tired sometimes. It caused me to be watched all the time. But other than those relatively minor things, it was no problem."

He adds that the hardest thing was pacing himself. "I'm not a good pacer," he admits. But he had help. Laurence Guidry, the governor's driver and personal aide, also "performed the critical function of supervising the governor's diet," wrote political scholars Dr. Jerrold M. Post of George Washington University and Tulane professor Robert S. Robins in their definitive book: When Illness Strikes the Leader (Yale University Press, 1993).

The reporters who covered him on a daily basis were familiar with Roemer's mood swings; some got caught on the downside. But more often than not, Roemer's staff stepped in when diabetes symptoms appeared.

"Roemer would sometimes get shaky and a little nervous at press conferences," reporter Hill recalls. "His staff was trained to recognize symptoms. They would bring him a glass of orange juice he would drink and immediately calm down."

Roemer's headaches as governor are generally ascribed to his politics, not his health. Like most "reform" governors in Louisiana, he served only one term and is perhaps best remembered for his ambitious agenda rather than for sweeping achievements. The Roemer Revolution to reform both the state education system and the archaic state tax structure failed badly.

But veteran journalist John Maginnis says Roemer should be remembered for strengthening state campaign finance laws and the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Under Roemer, DEQ was "probably the most active we've had in Louisiana, before or since then," he says.

Roemer also served as a role model for children and adults with diabetes, including one elected official who is a "high-ranking" state judge today, the ex-governor says.

In 1991, however, Roemer ran for re-election and lost, finishing in third place behind Edwin Edwards and David Duke, respectively. During the campaign, Thomas Clausen, a candidate for lieutenant governor, raised the possibility that Roemer could die in office from his diabetes.

The Louisiana affiliate of the American Diabetes Association protested Clausen's remarks. "It is incorrect to assume that a diagnosis of diabetes is a death sentence," Roberta Madden, executive director of the ADA chapter, said then. "Although the disease is indeed serious and does cause deaths due to complications, thousands of people with diabetes manage their health better than most people without diabetes -- simply because they must."

Roemer does not ascribe any lost votes to his diabetes. "I think that, when informed, [people] are very understanding. They want you to succeed. I always felt people were pulling for me. 'When informed' -- that's the key phrase," he says.

He has no plans to run for office again, but says his diabetes is not a factor in his decision. And he encourages politicians with illnesses or disabilities to be candid with the public. "I don't think people want to be surprised. I don't think people want you to do something or run for something and not tell them what the whole truth is."

Today, Roemer is a Baton Rouge-based developer of retirement communities statewide. Advocacy organizations for people with diabetes list his name alongside other successful diabetics, such as U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and legendary singers Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Gladys Knight.

"I think being a diabetic made me a better political leader, more sensitive, more understanding and, yes, more brittle," Roemer says. "I was more brittle."

click to enlarge During his political campaigns for Congress and governor in the 1980s and early '90s, Buddy Roemer had to learn how to live with and manage a dangerous form of diabetes.
  • During his political campaigns for Congress and governor in the 1980s and early '90s, Buddy Roemer had to learn how to live with and manage a dangerous form of diabetes.
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