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Presidential health not a new concern


For approaching four decades, it has been the norm for candidates running for the Oval Office to discuss and potentially release their medical information. Before 1980, presidents commonly hid significant medical issues from the American public; Franklin Delano Roosevelt hid his inability to walk and stand for his four term presidency, before dying from heart troubles and high blood pressure in April 1945. John Fitzgerald Kennedy hid his Addison’s disease during his campaign and presidency, even though it posed a significant risk to his health, and also had osteoporosis and took medicine for anxiety. Woodrow Wilson suffered from a stroke in office which was covered up by his wife Edith. William Henry Harrison, the shortest serving president, died of pneumonia a month after he contracted it at his inaugural address. Attempts to disguise iclement health are thus seen to be a common occurence in U.S. presidential history.

It wasn’t until 1980 that reporters began investigating the health of the Commander-in-Chief and candidates for that office. Lawrence Altman, a campaign reporter for the New York Times and a MD, was the first to interview candidates for president about their medical conditions. He asked Ronald Reagan about the health of his mother, a subject he hadn’t been vocal about during his campaign. Reagan explained this was because his mother ‘had become senile’ at the end of her life. Reagan would suffer from Alzheimer’s late in his presidency, as well as have cancerous cells removed from his colon. He made decisions after the operation he later did not remember.

Since that interview, it has been common to inquire about presidential candidates’ health. It has become a measurement with which we judge qualification for office. When Michael Dukakis’s psychiatric wellness was called into question, it caused setbacks his campaign staff were unable to bridge, even though the accusations were false. In 2008, anxieties about John McCain’s age pressured his campaign into releasing the candidate’s detailed medical records. This move set a precedent followed in the 2016 election. Considering the past 40 years of elections, the recent prying into Hillary Clinton’s health is not unusual.

However, just because this has become the norm does not mean it should not be questioned. Since Clinton left the 9/11 memorial on its fifteenth anniversary, concerns over how far into a candidate’s private life reporters and the public should foray have resurfaced. Lawrence Altman is of the opinion that, “individuals who run for office, and celebrities, give up a lot of their privacy in American society… so if you’re running for office you know you should be asked about your taxes…you should be asked about your health. It’s come to be something you disclose. I don’t think it’s invasive.” He stipulated later in his interview for New York Times podcast The Run Up that these health disclosures must be done with the consent of the candidate and their doctor.

After public speculation into Clinton’s health, and whether she has disclosed all she ought to, both candidates have released official medical transcripts. But this has not completely quieted the issue. People still question whether Clinton is too ill for office, and the Trump campaign continues to theatrically probe this point.

Debates over presidential health bring up questions of age discrimination, highlighted in perceptions of McCain’s wellbeing in 2008, and potential discrimination due to Clinton’s gender. Her supporters express concern over whether she is being perceived as more frail than a male candidate of her age and health would be perceived.

Constituents seem to want these records released for sake of transparency, but it may not affect how they actually vote. The presidency is a strenuous job, and those claiming Clinton’s health would compromise her abilities are misguided. After the candidates examinations have been released, rhetoric will again become the main indicator for constituents of who should hold the office.

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