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Slap Shots 

Wednesday, May 22 1996
Take My Breath Away
Three weeks ago, a backyard barbecue convened in the city. Against a robust, heart-clogging backdrop of sizzling red meat and bottles of Anchor Steam, a group of young political power brokers discussed the issues endemic to our current local Zeitgeist. At one point, one waved his arms to cease the prattle, and put a question to the group that stopped the cigar smokers in midpuff: "Who has the worst breath in City Hall politics?"

A vote was tallied. The winner, hands down? District Attorney Terence Hallinan.

The Terence Hallinan? The tough young boxer from Marin whose father successfully defended longshoremen leader Harry Bridges? The rebellious young adult who took part in anti-war protests and civil rights sit-ins? The fearless attorney who defended anti-Vietnam soldiers and drug dealers? The supervisor who supported old-growth redwoods and transgender rights? The city's newest district attorney, who has fired senior prosecutors with pink slips and gotten into a scuffle at a steakhouse? The boss whose employees' sexual harassment case ended up as monologue material for David Letterman? The man Warren Hinckle claims is the target of a media conspiracy? Bad breath?

"Frequently, if not most of the time when I interview Terence Hallinan," says one veteran political reporter, "I have to turn my head to the side to avoid the malodorous odor. It stings my eyes. You have to really squint and turn the other way, it's so bad."

But why should we know this innocuous tidbit about one of our city officials? Because bad breath is usually a medical symptom of a graver situation. A DA in declining health could make rash or unwise decisions, such as suddenly issuing condoms to the elderly. The well-being of our top cop affects us all.

"Horrific breath!" exclaims a former City Hall reporter. "Let's put it this way, I don't know anybody else at City Hall that has bad breath. I'm sure there must be somebody, but not the kind where you're just talking to them and writing notes on a pad and going, 'Holy shit, let me out of here!' It's like your old Uncle Floyd, who always wants to talk to you too close with tobacco breath."

Another longtime reporter also gives the thumb's up to Hallinan's halitosis:
"This is definitely true. Yes, definitely. Also Willie Brown. They don't use mouthwash! My advice is, politicians should definitely go to Walgreens and buy those little squirt-pump things you can squirt in your mouth to freshen your breath. What kind of a story are you doing?"

A story with apparently conflicting reports -- when a local television station is contacted, a producer delivers a message from another who books Hallinan as a news guest:

"She said she shakes his hand, she leads him into the studio, and she's never noticed anything."

We are now aware of his breath, but what about his salad years as an attorney? Is there any earlier record of such a condition? A spokesperson for the California Bar Association brings up Hallinan's file on the computer screen. He grew up in the Bay Area, graduated from Hastings College of Law -- local boy through and through.

"To the best of my knowledge," says the helpful employee, reading through the file, "he's never been on any of our committees."

Is there any mention whatsoever of bad breath in his file?
"Not at all," says the spokesperson confidently. "We wouldn't keep track of that, probably, anyway."

Although not 100 percent accurate, this informal poll still indicates more votes for bad breath than not, and leaves an unresolved "breath issue." What to do? The California Breath Center (800-963-9273) offers individual breath treatment here in the city. Three visits cost just $495, not including products like mouthwash and toothpaste. After a doctor measures your breath on a device called a "halometer," treatment begins to correct your mouth's sulfur-level imbalance. According to a CBC spokesperson, "When that's gone down in your mouth, then your halitosis will lower and the bad breath goes away."

But perhaps the situation with "Kayo" Hallinan is not that simple.
A local emergency room doctor was informed of the situation: the breath reports, the recent news items about bar fights and sexual harassment charges, the character of a once-proud municipality on potentially perilous footing. Our conversation prompted an immediate query: Is there any connection between bad breath and mental instability?

"It's true that people with mental dysfunction tend to be indifferent to their own hygiene," says the doc. "In general, the more preoccupied people become, the less they take care of themselves. I think that's a sound observation. Beyond that, it's really speculative."

OK, so Hallinan's probably not mentally unstable. But two hot, pungent questions remain. What makes bad breath? And outside of a tricked-out Breathalyzer, is there any help for the afflicted?

The primary causes of halitosis are as grisly as the district attorney's worst criminal case, according to the doc. The most common are gum and tooth decay, which can produce ungodly odors in any mouth. Second is a coated tongue, which signals the presence of fungus, dead cells, or congealed protein. Third is an obvious guess -- smoking -- and the fourth cause could be attributed to infections of the nose and tonsils. The fifth is the actual excretion of toxins by exhaling.

"The lungs eliminate a lot of poisons, which wasn't known until recently," continues the doc. "They found out that there's all these enzymes in the lungs that are detoxifying various volatile chemicals. So you're not just excreting carbon dioxide, but you're also excreting all sorts of other stuff that's volatile."

The breath can be thought of as a road map to poor health. For instance, a fruity odor means the person could be diabetic. Another odor is associated with bad strep throat. According to the doc, a "shit-smelling" odor can imply that someone is impacted, and we're not talking about a tooth.

"I've seen a lot of really old people who come in with what they call acute abdomens. You know, they haven't shit in seven days, they're dropping their blood pressure, and they got a hard rock in their pelvis. They have real bad breath."

But we're discussing our own district attorney here!
"He may have bad health for a variety of reasons," says the doc flatly. "He may have polyps or colitis, or just eat really bad food and hardly ever take a dump."

Our conversation is getting far off the subject. The problem is clear -- the city has a district attorney who makes headlines and reportedly also has a breath problem, which is probably a result of poor health. To remedy this affliction means to improve the health and well-being of Terence Hallinan. Does the doc have any suggestions?

"If he went to one of those really expensive health spas in the desert, and he ate good food and had exercise, and some cleansing of various types, and had his teeth looked into, the guy would definitely not smell so bad."

Let this be a lesson to us all.
By Jack Boulware

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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