Hillary Clinton’s begrudging release of information related to her health on Sunday follows a pattern set by candidates and many who have won the Oval Office.
It is a pattern of secrecy and, in some cases, cover-ups that would be scandalous if they occurred on other issues of policy.
Clinton mysteriously disappeared from public view during the Sept. 11 commemoration in New York City on Sunday. Pool reporters who follow her campaign were not told of her whereabouts for some hours. And after first saying she had been taken to her daughter’s apartment after feeling “overheated,” a statement from her personal physician revealed Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia last Friday and was being treated with antibiotics. On Monday, the campaign told MSNBC that she will release additional health records.
The illness follows a slew of conspiracy theories, circulating mostly online, about the candidate’s health. Some of those stem from a concussion she suffered (and healed from) as secretary of state in 2012.
Clinton’s recent illness and the reluctance of her campaign to release information about her health status raises once again the question of how much presidents, and those who aspire to the office, should reveal about their medical conditions.
Donald Trump initially released a statement from his gastroenterologist who proclaimed the 70-year-old businessman “would be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Trump now says he had a physical examination last week and will release the results “when the numbers come in.”
The standard for openness may have been set by Republican nominee John McCain in 2008. Then 71, McCain would have been the oldest president ever elected. He allowed reporters three hours to view some 1,200 pages of medical records. They confirmed that McCain had been treated for melanoma, along with arthritis, high cholesterol and other ailments.
But few other candidates or presidents have told us much about their health.
There have been health concerns and some scares with virtually every president in modern times, and those deeper in the history books as well.
Take President George W. Bush, who in January 2002 appeared at a speech sporting a reddish bruise on his face. The White House said he had briefly fainted and fell off a couch the night before, after choking on a pretzel while watching a football game.
Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, infamously became ill during a state dinner in Tokyo in 1992, vomiting at his chair — and based on some reports, the adjacent prime minister of Japan.
But that was an (embarrassingly) public display of presidential infirmity. In many more cases, the public has been kept unaware of the state of the president’s health, by design.
Probably the most famous example was the nation’s 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lost use of his legs following a bout with polio at age 39. It was widely known that Roosevelt relied on leg braces for mobility. But out of public view, Roosevelt used a wheelchair. White House officials did their best to keep photographers away and a compliant press corps went along.
In April 1945, less than six months after being elected to a fourth term, Roosevelt died following a stroke. It was only much later that it was disclosed that FDR had been suffering from dangerously high blood pressure for some time and, in fact, was ill during the campaign.
Still, for much of his presidency, Roosevelt projected an image of health and vigor, as did President John F. Kennedy. Now we know that the public image can hide a much different reality. In Kennedy’s case, it was Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands, along with chronic back pain and other maladies, including colitis. It necessitated a regimen of pills and injections that was kept from the public.
Perhaps the most blatant — and bizarre — presidential health cover-up involved President Grover Cleveland. In 1893, it was announced he would be going on a fishing trip. In reality, he was on board a friend’s yacht, where oral surgeons removed a cancerous tumor from the roof of his mouth. A week later, Cleveland returned to the White House, his “fishing trip” an apparent success.
Woodrow Wilson’s stroke during his second term was also kept from the public. It occurred as he was campaigning in support of the League of Nations. He was partially paralyzed and lost vision in one eye. His wife, Edith, kept visitors from Wilson and limited the papers he saw. Wilson remained debilitated for the final 18 months of his administration, which led Congress, some four decades later, to approve the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, outlining how a president should be succeeded in cases of incapacitation.