Published: Salon (September 16, 2016)
After Hillary Clinton nearly collapsed at a 9/11 ceremony earlier this week, allegedly due to pneumonia and overheating, the American public is naturally concerned. On the one hand, people wonder whether Clinton is healthy enough to assume the presidency. On the other, they face the fact that ruling Clinton out for health reasons may lead to the election of a truly dangerous man. What should the voting public do?
In situations like this, recent history can be a useful guide. Although many presidents have struggled with health issues, there are three from the last century or so who did so during the thick of an election campaign: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.
When Roosevelt sought an unprecedented fourth term in 1944 against Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey — a young and inexperienced New York governor best known as a prosecutor who took down several organized crime syndicates — America was still waging World War II, transitioning toward a postwar economy and girding itself for an impending military rivalry with the Soviet Union. Needless to say, the fate of the world literally hinged on making sure the right leadership was in charge during this time, which observers were quick to note when pointing out that Roosevelt looked gravely ill throughout the year. Rumors of health problems swirled around the beleaguered Democrat, who nevertheless selected an inexperienced Missouri senator named Harry Truman as his running mate. As it turns out, the whispering campaign had merit — Roosevelt had received a doctor’s note that July warning that he likely would not survive four more years in the White House, and he wound up dying of a stroke less than three months into his new term. Whilehistorians generally believe Truman did an adequate job assuming Roosevelt’s responsibilities (deciding whether to use the atomic bomb against Japan being one of the first), that had more to do with good luck than deliberate planning on FDR’s part.
This brings us to the election of 1956. In September 1955, before President Dwight Eisenhower had decided whether or not he would seek re-election, he suffered a serious heart attack and was hospitalized for six weeks. During that time, Vice President Richard Nixon worked closely with Eisenhower’s advisers to keep the government running despite the commander-in-chief’s absence. Because Eisenhower was forthcoming about his medical condition, the voting public was able to engage in open debate over the implications of this unexpected crisis throughout the ensuing election cycle. Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent, for the second consecutive election, was Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson, a moderate intellectual widely regarded as mentally and physically fit for higher office. But voters were satisfied enough with Eisenhower’s performance — and, presumably, with Nixon’s interim administration during Eisenhower’s convalescence — that they re-elected him by an even larger margin than he had received four years earlier.
Finally there is Kennedy. When JFK sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, he was forced to ward off rumors that he suffered from Addison’s Disease, or adrenal insufficiency, due to his adrenal glands being almost completely gone. Not only did Kennedy deny that he had the condition, he frequently mentioned the fact that his chief rival for the nomination, Lyndon Johnson, had had a heart attack five years earlier.
After Kennedy’s death, however, two pathologists confirmed that he had Addison’s, and it was subsequently revealed that he medicated himself by taking adrenal hormone, cortisone and other supplements. Although the disease was treatable, it was still potentially fatal, and the hormone therapy could cause mood swings, stomach inflammation and ulcers. Had the public known about this when Kennedy faced off against Republican candidate Richard Nixon in the extremely close general election of 1960, it’s entirely possible he would have lost.
There are two main lessons to be learned from these historical incidents. First and foremost, every presidential candidate has an ethical responsibility to disclose potential health problems that could compromise his or her ability to serve as president. One has to wonder whether Roosevelt rationalized not revealing his doctor’s concerns because he had spent more than a decade hiding his paraplegia. , Regardless, there is a considerable difference between concealing an irrelevant disability and concealing an ailment that could impair one’s physical or mental fitness. Roosevelt’s myriad health problems and Eisenhower’s heart attack both raised the question of whether they could live out their terms in office, while Kennedy’s hormonal problems raised doubt as to his emotional fitness. For better or worse, the public has the right to know these things so it can make an informed decision about how to vote.
As Eisenhower demonstrated, a presidential candidate can be open about serious medical problems and still win an election. Even electing an ailing president can often be better than choosing someone with serious character or ideological flaws. While there is no way of knowing for sure how Dewey, Stevenson or Nixon would have performed had they won their respective elections, we can safely infer a few things. Dewey would have taken more isolationist positions than Roosevelt, because of where the Republicans stood on foreign policy at that time. Nixon, who was never favorably disposed to racial minorities, would have been much less sympathetic to civil rights than Kennedy was.
That said, the differences between Roosevelt/Truman and Dewey, Eisenhower/Nixon and Stevenson, and Kennedy/Johnson and Nixon are nothing compared to the gulf separating Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine from this year’s Republican nominee. Throughout this campaign, Trump has blatantly pandered to racism, heaped praise on Vladimir Putin and demonstrated a terrifying willingness to start nuclear war, to name only three of the many things that work against him. When a candidate like Trump is one option, both Clinton and Kaine emerge as far superior alternatives, regardless of any potential health issues. While history makes it clear that Clinton should be more forthcoming about her current health problems, it also teaches us that there are consequences to elections which transcend such questions.
If there is any benefit to the sudden focus on Clinton’s health, it’s that this moment offers Americans another opportunity to place current events in historical context. The questions raised by Clinton’s crisis at the 9/11 memorial aren’t black-and-white. It is troubling that the Democratic nominee has been so secretive about her health, given our experiences with past presidents. Clinton’s doctor has now said her medical problems are minor, and that she should be fine once the pneumonia clears up. Yet even if the worst is true regarding Clinton’s health, that doesn’t end the conversation regarding whether she should win this election. Consider the alternative.