April 30, 1990 12:00 PM

The mood was upbeat as the Marine helicopter carrying President Bush and his physician and friend, Burton Lee, left the White House for Bethesda Naval Hospital earlier this month for the President’s annual physical exam. About 10 minutes later, Bush was being ushered into the hospital’s Presidential Suite, where, for the next four hours, he was poked and prodded by eight specialists selected by Lee.

“Instead of me making decisions,” explains the dapper physician, 60, “I let them be made by the guys I consider to be the experts. Then we go over all the material together and see if there’s a problem.” This time there was. The examining ophthalmologist found that Bush was suffering from early glaucoma in his left eye, a disorder that results from impaired drainage of fluid within the eye, causing increased pressure in the eyeball that can damage the optic nerve. Although Bush’s vision is fine, glaucoma can lead to blindness if left untreated. “Last year we picked up a minimal elevation in pressure in the eye,” says Lee. “We didn’t discuss it [with Bush] then. He has enough on his mind without worrying that he has one chance in x of getting this mild thing. We just had to wait and see.”

The diagnosis came as a surprise to Bush. “I haven’t felt a thing,” he told reporters later. Lee explained the disease and its treatment, eye drops that he will have to take for the rest of his life to reduce fluid production. The President, says Lee, “took it at face value, and that was the end of it. It took all of about three minutes.”

“The vision thing,” as Bush later called it, is the only potentially serious health problem he has had since becoming President, and it was this medical quietude that Lee’s friends warned him about before he accepted the post a year ago. A highly respected specialist at Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for 30 years, Lee was used to treating dozens of patients a day and battling life-threatening diseases. But he welcomed the change (“That job was probably going to kill me”)—even when his first patient turned out to be Millie Bush, the First Dog, whom he successfully treated for an infection.

“I never imagined this job in a million years,” says the native New Yorker, sitting in his ground floor office below the Bushes’ living quarters. “But it’s a good fit for me.” His previous patients, Lee explains, have included lots of high-powered types who taught him the hazards of “VIP medicine.” “VIPs tend to get the lowest common denominator of medicine,” says Lee, “because they try to call their own shots. But you can’t be concerned that [the President] is the most powerful person in the Western world…. You have to do what you have to do.”

Potentially Lee’s weightiest responsibility is determining presidential disability in the event of serious illness or injury. Soon after accepting his post, he sat down with the President and Mrs. Bush, Chief of Staff John Sununu and Vice President Quayle and discussed the delicate question. “I think we have our ducks in a row should anything like that happen,” says Lee, glancing up at a video screen that carries up-to-the-minute details of the Bushes’ and Quayles’ whereabouts. He has bluntly told his boss he’d resign before cooperating in a cover-up. “I’m going to make the final call on whether he’s disabled, and I’m going to be extremely sure I’ve made an accurate call,” he says.

A 1952 graduate of Yale (Bush was ’48), Lee went to Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, spent two years in the Army Medical Corps, then joined Sloan-Kettering, specializing in cancers of the lymph system. His ties to Bush go back to the ’50s, when they met through mutual friends. The White House physician finds that the long relationship is now a professional asset. “If you know somebody well, you know when they’re sick. I spotted Barbara Bush’s thyroid problem the first day I was on the job,” he says, referring to her Graves’ disease, which was diagnosed by the White House medical staff. “You almost always have difficulties with that damn Graves’ disease,” he says, “but she’s doing better all the time.” Mrs. Bush recently told reporters that her double vision had disappeared.

Lee’s public-service career began in 1987, when President Reagan named him to the country’s first commission on AIDS. During the group’s quarrelsome early days, Lee often had a calming influence; the commission eventually produced a report on the disease, which Lee calls “the best thing I ever did in my professional life.” One issue he refuses to tackle, however, is the presidential partiality for pork rinds and loathing of certain healthful green vegetables. “He’s a meat and potatoes guy, what can I tell you? ” says Lee. “You can’t fight success. And he’s incredibly successful at being healthy.”

—Bonnie Johnson, Linda Kramer in Washington

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