Down the Rabbit Hole of Presidential Health

A Look at the Presidents Who Have Lied About Their Health and Why it Matters

By Charlie Flynn

I, like many, felt a glimmer of hope when Trump’s Covid diagnosis was announced. Not in a malicious way mind you, I simply thought that this may have been a humbling moment for the President. After coming face to face with the virus, could it be possible that he may start to take this pandemic seriously?   

Alas not.

Mere days after his hospital admission he was back, standing tall on the White House balcony, flanked by not two, but four, Star-Spangled banners, ripping off his mask for the cameras and pronouncing: “Don’t be afraid of Covid.”In the days to come, he would repeatedly tell the media just how great he felt and, with complete earnest, that he recovered from the virus so quickly because he believed himself to be a “perfect physical specimen” and that he even suspected he might be “immune” from it, all whilst trying stifle a telling cough under his breath.

For the record, the 74-year-old is not the perfect physical specimen, but that is not to say he is particularly unhealthy either. A White House physical from February last year officially labelled the president as “Obese.” A worrying but unsurprising piece of news from the president who argues that McDonald’s fries are the reason he hasn’t gone bald. However, the report admitted that the president was in “very good health overall.” Indeed, despite bizarre claims from CNN’s Joe Lockhart that the President had suffered “secret strokes” the President does appear to be in relatively good shape for his age, and that is exactly how he wants to appear. 

President Trump has always used his health as a weapon in his sordid election-winning arsenal. In 2015, he told a crowd that “we need a president with unbelievable strength and stamina, and Hilary does not have it,” in reference to her numerous health issues at the time. Now, in 2020, we can see this same strategy at the forefront of his campaign in the form of yet another catchy nickname. Joining the ranks of “Crooked Hilary” and “Lyin’ Ted” comes “Sleepy Joe.” 

And what are we to make of poor “Sleepy Joe” Biden? As of 2020, the presidential hopeful is 77 years of age. To put that into perspective, Donald Trump was the oldest first term president at 70. The Average age for a US president to take office is 56. It is an undeniable fact that Joe Biden is old, even by President standards, and it really shows. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden has earned himself a less than fond reputation as a loveable gaffe-machine. Every time he opens his mouth, it’s only a matter of time before he says something grossly offensive, gets someone’s name wrong, or slips into long, winding, never-ending yarn. It’s unsurprising then that voters have started to question his mental faculties, with calls for him to provide evidence that he has passed a cognitive test. This has clearly struck a nerve. Once asked about this at a press event, he infamously replied: “No. I haven’t taken a test! Why the hell would I take a test! C’mon, man!” before cryptically retorting “That’s like saying you, before you got on this program, if you take a test where you’re taking cocaine or not, what do you think? Huh? Are you a junkie?” Quite. 

So, while Trump surges ahead full of bravado, trying to convince the American people he is some kind of unkillable, orange-tinted, Uber-mensch; poor Joe Biden is battling to even seem competent. 

Clearly, whether it’s Trump playing down the effects of coronavirus or Biden hiding his cognitive defects, both men are being less than transparent about their health. Just maybe, for good reason. 

Afterall, hiding debilitating health problems is something of a presidential tradition. It is a tradition of Presidents deliberately deceiving the electorate, depriving them of all agency, and taking it upon themselves to decide, rightly or wrongly, that they are fit to lead. It is a tradition that has been observed by some of the most venerated leaders of modern times and with November lumbering ever closer,  it is more important than ever to understand its history and unfortunate consequences. 

When the topic of concealing ailments from the public is brought up, the President who perhaps immediately springs to mind is one whose attempts to hide his health issues became, in a sense, the cherry atop an already illustrious  legacy. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt inherited the presidency in 1933, at the height of the great depression. With his soothing Fireside chats and monumental ‘New Deal’ reforms, he managed to salvage the American economy and end the darkest economic period the country has ever seen. Less than 10 years later, he would lead the United States through one of the most tragic periods of human history and out the other side, triumphing over the evils of Nazism and emerging as an almost unrivalled superpower. All of this was achieved whilst FDR was paralyzed from the waist down following an attack of polio 1921. 

Very few knew of this affliction during his time in office as he took serious efforts to appear healthy to the electorate. Though confined to a wheelchair in his private life, he refused to use it in public. To appear as if we were “walking”, FDR would use a cane and someone’s arm, usually his son, to balance whilst swaying his hips. The White House requested that reporters not take photographs of the president whilst walking short distances using his metal leg braces or being transferred in and out of cars, with the secret service being tasked to block the view of the president should any nosey reporters try their hand.When on the campaign trial, Roosevelt developed a method of wearing his leg braces and  holding himself upright using a lectern or podium. He would even climb the stairs purely with the use of his arms. As a result, his upper body became so strong that it was complemented by boxer Jack Dempsey.

The afflictions of FDR and his stoic attempts to hide these from the American people serve as a testament to his character. At a time of unparalleled crisis and uncertainty, he felt compelled to be seen as a pillar of strength, both in body and mind. No one who learns of FDR’s paralysis finds themselves shocked at this blatant deception of the American people, they merely stand in awe of a man who took extraordinary steps to prove himself worthy to lead the country he loved.  

The same cannot be said of another president with a similarly famous three letter moniker. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the youngest man to be elected president at the age of 43, and his image capitalised on that fact. With his talk of a ‘New Frontier’ symbolising hope and progress, Kennedy represented a young, dynamic, youthful change of pace. With his photogenic good-looks and near celebrity status, Kennedy oozed vitality and vigour. Nothing could have been further from the truth. 

As many knew at the time, Kennedy suffered from chronic back troubles as a result of his time in the Navy. Few knew though that he often wore a back-brace, used crutches to hobble around and lived in near constant pain, made even worse by a string of experimental surgeries. This was just one of his ailments. Throughout his short term in office, he suffered from Addison’s disease, a condition that affects the body’s ability to regulate blood-sugar and respond to stress. This was, ironically, the cause of his seemingly persistent tan. He also suffered from regular ulcers, colitis, infections, insomnia and abscesses. This staggering list of ailments, however, is not the worrying part. 

In order to cope with the daily rigours of presidential life, Kennedy had a roster of Doctors on call ready and waiting with a dizzying smorgasbord-board of pills and drugs. One of these doctors, German emigre Max Jacobson, was nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood” by the Hollywood starlets he treated with amphetamines; or “pep pills.” Janet Travell, one of Kennedy’s personal physicians, records that during periods of stress, like the Cuban missile Crisis, Kennedy was taking; “steroids for his Addison’s disease; painkillers for his back; anti-spasmodics for his colitis; antibiotics for urinary-tract infections; antihistamines for allergies; and, on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic (though only for two days) for a severe mood change.” When people questioned, quite rightly, the sheer quantity of drugs Kennedy was taking on a regular basis, he is reported to have replied: “I don’t care if it’s horse-piss. It works”.  

In some ways, Kennedy shares certain similarities with FDR. Again, we have a president stoically battling through chronic pain and discomfort to perform his civic duty. It’s possible to see how Kennedy’s afflictions, like FDR’s, demonstrate his extraordinary moral character. Yet, I believe that Kennedy’s enduring legacy, cemented by the Cuban Missile Crisis, somewhat obscures the picture. We know, in hindsight, that the world would successfully navigate nuclear war in 1962. However, the people of 1962 did not know that when their president appeared before them, it was only possible through an eye-watering treatment regimen of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. Against the backdrop of one of the most uncertain periods of American history; do you think they would have trusted JFK with the button had they known? 

There is perhaps one president though who did not manage to navigate his Cuban Missile crisis. In fact, he failed his particular test as a result of his health problems that were kept secret from the public. This man, I think, may lend some perspective to the Kennedy case and the cases that face us in November. 

In 1919, America was debating its next big issue; entrance into the League of Nations. The League was to be the world’s first intergovernmental organisation with the aim of keeping the world from another world war. Woodrow Wilson, the President at the time, was one of the League’s most passionate advocates, having won the Nobel prize for that very reason earlier that year. However, the Senate did not share his enthusiasm. A gaggle of Republicans led by Henry Cabot Lodge opposed entrance to the League, on the grounds that it violated US sovereignty. Wilson embarked on a speaking tour of the country to attempt to whip up enthusiasm. Then something happened. 

On October 2nd, 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a catastrophic stroke. It was not his first. He had been having strokes on and off from as early as 1896. After another stroke in 1906, he was told that they would continue unless he adopted a more sedentary lifestyle. By 1912, he was President. This stroke, however, was his worst yet. It left him partially paralysed on his left side, and partially blind in his left eye. Perhaps more importantly, his psyche was affected. He became pettier, brought in new, less qualified subordinates. He became more obstinate, less willing to compromise and would squabble over even the most minute issues. However, he would not step down, convinced of his own ability to lead. The full details of his stroke would not be released to the public, his doctor refused to sign him off as unfit for office and his wife, Edith, began to take on more and more of his administrative duties. In the following months, Wilson would fail to reach a compromise with Cabot. America would never join the League of Nations. The effects of this cannot be accurately measured, but the League sorely missed the influence of the world’s most powerful nation. 

Wilson, in firm denial about his own health, was unfit to hold office following his stroke in 1919. As a direct result of his health, he was unable to effectively achieve his vision for the country and was prevented, due to his own stubbornness, from achieving a real feat of diplomacy that could have ushered in an age of world peace and prosperity. He could have stepped down. He did not. He could have informed the public. He did not. The world would suffer as a result. 

The key to all of this is the idea of capability. A leader must be capable of clear and decisive judgement, capable of handling enormous stress and pressure and be capable of inspiring confidence in their subordinates. Illness, mental or physical, will affect each of these qualities. In the case of FDR, he hid his illness from the American people for fear that they might unjustly judge him incapable of effective leadership as a result of his ultimately superficial handicap. Under no reasonable criteria could FDR have been judged incapable. JFK and Woodrow Wilson convinced themselves, through sheer willpower and denial, that they were fit for office, yet hid their crippling afflictions in the knowledge that people would think otherwise. One of them was correct. One of them was not. We cannot afford to roll that dice. In theory, one of the benefits of a democracy is that we don’t have to. In short, it is not the place of Presidents to decide if they are fit to lead in a democratic society. In a democracy, as America reportedly is, the voters are the ones who have to make that call. If Presidents lie and try to make themselves out to be paragons of health, even if the reality is vastly different, then we will never be able to make the right call. 

Biden has been cagey about his mental health from the beginning. He refuses to be transparent with the electorate with regards to arguably one of the most important qualities in a President; cognition. Trump, whilst not necessarily hiding anything of that magnitude, is guilty of something else. His recent playing down of his coronavirus diagnosis and constant need to seem active and energetic despite clear evidence to the contrary sets a worrying precedent. Donald Trump is a president who relies on his bombastic, bold image. Ultimately, he is also a 74-year-old man with one of the most stressful, demanding jobs on the planet. It is only a matter of time before that image far outstrips him, and when it does, it is almost certain that we will never know.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Photo from FDR Presidential Library & Museum under Creative Commons License

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