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Heart surgeons are like athletes. Their best work requires tremendous endurance for feats of physical precision, coordination, and ingenuity. This is why the best surgeons are past their prime by the age of 50. That’s when the strength and control that flows from brain to fingertips begins to ebb.

At more than 80 years of age, Michael DeBakey of Houston, Texas, is long past wielding the scalpel as he once could. His mind isn’t clouded, though, and as a cardiological consultant, he has devised a specialty that’s never been thought of before.

DeBakey is the world’s expert on the heartbeat of foreign politicians whose survival is a national interest of the Clinton Administration. You might say he’s more than a cardiological expert. He’s the human equivalent of the pacemaker — that battery-like gadget which, when implanted in the body, monitors the natural heart muscle, and gives it an electrical charge when it falters a beat or two.

When DeBakey visits a politician, you know Washington believes the patient is so sick, he may drop dead at any moment. And when DeBakey announces the patient is brimful of health, you know the Houston Pacemaker is at work. DeBakey’s job is to convince men, who claim to be omnipotent, that they will survive — because the US Government wants them to. In those circles where surgeons thinking of doing, or what his political opponents were demanding. The Houston Pacemaker isn’t for lame ducks.

A few days ago, it was reported that DeBakey had been to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he met President Geydar Aliyev. Because the press claimed DeBakey was there to discuss the establishment of a cardiological clinic, and apparently omitted to explain how pink Aliyev’s condition was, it was naturally assumed that Aliyev was in danger. By the time Aliyev appeared last week in a Turkish hospital, it was too late for the Houston Pacemaker to do his job. Doubt had begun to do its dirty work.

DeBakey has visited Russia many times. On the occasions that have become public knowledge, DeBakey has pronounced his chief patient, President Boris Yeltsin’s heart, to be in the pink of condition. Understandably, although red is the colour of a healthy organ, that isn’t the politically correct adjective to use.Some, like Viktor Chernomyrdin, have already had their cardiological surgery turn out encouragingly. Others are less worried about missing their heartbeat than losing the attention of the Clinton Administration. The nice thing about the Houston Pacemaker is that it’s wired in two directions — to the patient, and to the Situation Room in the Washington White House.

When presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky suffered his cardiological setback late last year, DeBakey wasn’t there to give reassurance. The Situation Room didn’t care. Yavlinsky had to fly to Germany for surgery instead. The political meaning was unmistakeable — Yavlinsky’s heart is dead meat in Washington.

Governor Alexander Lebed has at least one of the risk factors for cardiological disease. He smokes. But he doesn’t drink; he appeals to love the one wife; and he manages to express the emotions that raise blood pressure and put strain on the heart muscle, if they are repressed.It’s too early for him to receive DeBakey.

But what about those Russian politicians whose political infarcts the Clinton Administration has helped bring on — Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Fyodorov,Alexander Shokhin, Sergei Kiriyenko?

It is said that DeBakey’s appointment diary mentions more than one of these names. Which of them is a secret that is darker than a chest cavity? It would give the game away entirely, if DeBakey were to announce publicly that he had been consulting these men on their cardiological condition.

It was embarrassing for Gaidar when George Soros recently revealed that last August, when Kiriyenko was supposed to be prime minister, Soros and the US Treasury negotiated with Gaidar over the financial terms required to save the government. If DeBakey had said, then or since, that Gaidar was in perfect health, everyone would realise that Gaidar was the man Washington intended to rule Russia for as long as his heart could be made to tick.

As events turned out, Gaidar was saved, and Kiriyenko went down. Now it should be Kiriyenko’s turn to apply to DeBakey for a cardiological consultation. Perhaps the two of them met when Kiriyenko was at Harvard, trying to convince the American establishment of his political resuscitation. He should have gone to Houston, instead.

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