After 240 Years of Presidential Health Issues: What Do We Really Need to Know?

Shoot Date: 
Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Concern about the health of our nation’s President is nothing new, but no matter who the President is, he or she, is only human. So how have health issues been handled during our nation’s history and what do we really need to know?

We’ve had forty some odd Presidents, most of whom have been over 50 or 60 years old, there must have been some serious health issues. Sometimes the public knew, but most of the time they did not. And yet, these Presidents generally did their job and did it well. For example, Andrew Jackson, walked around with two bullets lodged in his body and regularly bled himself before going to bed at night. William Taft was morbidly obese. Franklin Roosevelt was a paraplegic with heart disease. Kennedy had Addison disease and serious back problems he and took demerol, methadone and barbiturates for. After taking office, Eisenhower had a serious heart attack. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke. In fact, the public push to have this information arguably does more harm than good because it’s oftentimes resulted in a President not getting the best possible care. Take for example, Grover Cleveland, who needed surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his mouth, and had it done secretly on a boat in the Hudson River. They’re so paranoid about anyone knowing what’s wrong with them that they take risks or pass on the top expert for a trusted old family doctor. Trump’s medical letter came from his family doctor whose own father was Trumps dad’s doctors.

Transparency is the big question. As a society we generally have some of the highest HIPPA standards for medical privacy. And we’re a society that opposes discrimination, including ageism. Trumps 2 years older than Clinton. And we know that women live longer than men. Does that mean we don’t elect any more men? Balancing our values in this regard with public interest is complicated. But, just as important is that the same standard of transparency apply equally to all candidates. Do we want to see actual medical records or is a doctor letter OK? Trumps doctor wrote that his patient would be the most fit President ever. How does he know that without first examining every other President? At the end of the day, that goes to what types of medical issues you feel must be disclosed to protect us, for example, life threatening cancer may be something that falls into that bucket. Shingles probably does not. But what about mental health? Several of our Founding Fathers were rumored to have suffered from depression. Jefferson is said to have had Asperger. They must have been a little crazy to have stood up and formed a Revolution against the biggest superpower in the world at that time. How many Presidents drank more than many of us would approve of – were they technically alcoholics or addicts? Where do we draw the line. And what about family history, one of the best indicators for potential illness? Trump’s dad had Alzheimer. Clinton’s dad had a stroke.

We’ve had several President’s actually die from health reasons in office. For example, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That’s why the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1967, provides for a transfer of power to the vice president if the president is incapacitated. Which is exactly what happened in those cases, but also in cases of Presidential assassination. Vice presidents are more carefully vetted, and are more intimately involved with the operations of the government, than they were a century ago. And improved medical treatments give a president a better shot at overcoming a health crisis In fact, the biggest risk factor for any Presidential candidate is probably actually becoming President. Being President is not exactly great for your health. In 1841, President William Henry Harrison became the first U.S. President to die in office. Since then, the office of Vice President has been vacant sixteen times due to the death or resignation of the Vice President or his succession to the presidency. Because all Presidents are only human.

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