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Henningsen: Presidential Health

Here are some people who never would’ve become president had the public known of their medical problems or the extent to which they’d gone to conceal them. Thomas Jefferson, whose migraine headaches left him prostrate for months at a time.

Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from recurring, at times almost suicidal depression.

Theodore Roosevelt, who’d been advised as a college student that his heart was so weak he should lead the life of an invalid.

Woodrow Wilson, who’d had at least one stroke before entering politics and suffered another in 1919. His wife and doctor concealed the severity of his illness for months. While Congress fought over the Treaty of Versailles and America’s membership in the League of Nations, Wilson lay incommunicado in the White House.

Franklin Roosevelt’s polio was known to the public but so skillfully downplayed that few Americans understood the extent of his disability. Photos and newsreels portrayed Roosevelt from the waist up, featuring his beefy upper torso – bulked up from swimming – and massive head. FDR had a private deal with the press that he’d never be photographed in a wheelchair or being moved from place to place. Americans who did witness hefty Secret Service agents lug Roosevelt like a sack of potatoes from his car to a speaker’s podium never forgot their shock. When FDR ran for a fourth term, he and his doctors concealed his rapidly failing health. In fact, he would die less than three months into his new term.

Dwight Eisenhower’s doctors downplayed the severity of a heart attack that almost killed Ike during his first term.

Kennedy’s Addison’s Disease, LBJ’s damaged heart, Reagan’s health during his second term – these are more recent examples of what we didn’t know. How might things have been different if we did?

Politics is draining: it attracts energetic, determined, and resilient people, who ignore or downplay setbacks and who believe that any sign of weakness is a gift to the opposition. Hillary Clinton is in a particular bind, since the “tough it out” standard seems quintessentially male – set by all those guys who wouldn’t – and believed they couldn’t - level with the public.

And we’re in that bind too. Would we have wanted to know the whole story on Lincoln or FDR?

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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