A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1835
September 19, 2016

PRESIDENTIAL ILLNESSES

MONTPELIER – If an arctic wolf attacks a herd of moving caribou and manages to kill one, the rest of the herd just keeps on moving. Curiosity is not a caribou’s strong suit. As Robert Frost writes in his description of a dead ant, “No one stands round to stare; it is nobody else's affair.”

Human beings, on the other hand, are diametrically opposite to that. Police officers are often at some pains to keep traffic moving past the scene of a wreck; every passing motorist wants to stop and stare. I’m fairly sure that we watch figure skating competitions, auto races, and presidential debates for the same – if unstated – reason: to watch, amidst the pursuit of perfection, crashes. These invariably elicit sympathetic clucks, unsympathetic I-told-you-sos, or even (depending upon your sympathies in the situation) cries of happiness.

Following the current presidential campaign is much the same for most of us. The media, in their efforts to remain “fair and balanced,” have almost completely failed in their obligation to ask followup questions calculated to reveal the buncombe, bias, or motives behind the statements of the candidates. Instead, they focus on trivia, and often come across like old-fashioned washerwomen gossiping over the backyard fence about their neighbors’ latest problems. And to be fair, we, the consumers of the media’s productions, lap it up.

Case in point: Candidate Clinton’s recent “collapse” at a 9/11 rally, when she was hustled into a waiting vehicle and driven to her daughter’s house to recover from a case of pneumonia. You’d have thought, from the reports of the incident, that she’d at least ruptured her aorta; and partly because of her unwise habit of holding her cards a little too close to her chest, the electorate assumed the worst. The poll numbers related to her perecived health dropped significantly.

Meanwhile, her opponent, a 70-year-old clinically obese mountebank on statins, appears to have gotten away scot-free by sharing a one-page “report” on his health with a fellow television impresario, Doctor Mehmet Oz. It was a perfectly timed media coup, and the viewers ate it up. Never mind that the report in question was written by a physician who had earlier declared that Donald Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” A game of Twenty-One against, say, Barack Obama? Not with those short fingers.

All this blithering ignores the fact that many of our past presidents, including some of our greatest, could never have been elected – much less reelected or even allowed to continue in office – if they’d been subjected to the same scrutiny that we take for granted today.

The early presidents appear to have suffered as much from what we now consider primitive medicine as from the diseases they were supposed to cure. Boluses of mercury were popular nostrums; a substantial supply accompanied Lewis and Clark across the country during the Jefferson Administration. But there’s no minimizing the illnesses that plagued, for example, George Washington: smallpox at 19 (which permanently disfigured his face), malaria, dysentery, and loss of all his teeth by the time he assumed the presidency. During his tenure, it was rheumatism: “I have, of late been so much afflicted with a rheumatic complaint in my shoulder that at times I am hardly able to raise my hand to my head, or turn myself in bed.” Then it was anthrax, which led to a life-threatening abscess in his thigh. The year after, pneumonia.

John Adams and his wife, Abigail, are best known today for their correspondence while he was away from home. But in their time they were practically catalogs of disagreeable afflictions. Without going into details – which would be lengthy; you can look them up – it’s probably enough to quote his biographer James Grant: “An eighteenth-century hypochondriac was not necessarily deluded.” It’s amazing to me that he even wanted to carry on, let alone could. Yet he and his successor, Thomas Jefferson, lived to great age, both of them apparently motivated by a fixed desire to survive to the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson, once lauded by President Kennedy as the smartest man ever to occupy the White House, suffered from chronic diarrhea and lengthy debilitating bouts of migraine. He often pleaded sickness in order to avoid public appearances.

Andrew Jackson suffered from a terrible temper, depression, malaria and dysentery contracted during the Seminole War, and possibly some lead poisoning from the effects of dueling. Grover Cleveland, diagnosed with mouth cancer at a critical moment in the nation’s financial history, underwent a delicate secret surgery aboard a friend’s yacht. Even his vice-president wasn’t informed. Miraculously, he survived. Woodrow Wilson had suffered a stroke even before his first election to the presidency. A massive stroke during his second term put him entirely out of action. His second wife, Edith, and a few intimates carried on and kept the news from the public.

One of Ronald Reagan’s sons declares that “there was something off” before the end of his second term. Very few journalists have yet dared tread on that hallowed ground. Those of us watching and listening, however, sensed something amiss just after the mid-80s. Secretary Gorbachev, with his usual diplomatic tact, alluded to it in 1988. The New York Times quotes him: “Mr. Reagan was more subdued and appeared to be uncomfortable with the discussion of specific issues, preferring instead to keep his remarks general and anecdotal.” Given a choice of secrets, I’ll take Hillary’s pneumonia any day over Ronnie’s “journey...into the sunset of my life.”

Photo by Willem lange