The presidency in sickness and in health

By Michael P. Riccards

The recent illness of President Trump is only the latest episode in our chief executives fighting medical problems.

In the 20th century, the nation experienced some extremely important setbacks linked to the illnesses of the chief executive. President Wilson suffered probably from the Spanish flu when he visited Europe to negotiate the peace treaty at Paris. He had a history of strokes going back to his academic days at Princeton, and his final stroke was one of the most dramatic and consequential instances of how a president’s behavior can be impacted by sickness. Some historians believe that his refusal to compromise with the Senate on the treaty was due in part to his neurological malfunctioning after his collapse.  Even his devoted wife asked him to compromise, but he refused — to the delight of his opponents. 

Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, died in his term from a heart attack, and Calvin Coolidge was angling for a second term after Hoover got elected, but he died of a stroke while shaving.  The next great occasion of a presidential illness interfering with judgment was Franklin D. Roosevelt.  As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he had visited Europe after the war and nearly died of the Spanish flu.  He of course is remembered for his heroic battle against polio, but he was frequently ill during his career.  Some have postulated that being homeschooled, he never got the immunities that are normal for a child interacting with other children. His last year is a sad chronicle of a president racing against time, trying to win the war, but being worn down by the duties he had before him. He died of a stroke also. It is interesting that like his cousin Theodore, he did not lie into his 60s.  

We have had some presidents who have lasted long: Adams, Jefferson, Hoover, Truman and an ailing Reagan. They were men of means who received the best medical coverage the nation could provide.  But the presidency has been visited by men who had serious physical conditions. Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, which some historians say would have taken his life in his second term.  Reagan didn’t even remember his cabinet secretaries’ names in the end.  Kennedy was so doped up at Vienna that he allowed Khrushchev to run circles around him, and some prurient observers attribute his sexual promiscuity to the drugs he had to take to deal with his Addison’s disease. 

One of the phenomena we have seen is the inaccuracies and lies that personal physicians to the presidents contribute to. Trump’s physician, a war hero in Afghanistan, admitted that the president wanted to be upbeat; meanwhile his chief of staff said that they were forced to give him oxygen twice before he left for Walter Reed Hospital.

Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln and FDR were fairly young men, so longevity is not a total gauge of whom to elect. We need physically healthy women and men to run our positions of responsibility.  But we need people who are wise, cautious and honorable. No one wants to admit that a position attracts individuals who are prone to illness, but it appears that those high powered people may have a need to excel based on knowledge of their own mortality and their own shortcomings. It is not  easy to plunge into a person’s mind on those issues,  and our constitutional provisions for disability make it so hard to find our way that sooner or later we may have to ask if a president is totally “with it,” knowing the unfortunate answer is no. We haven’t even dealt with mental problems that develop or may have been hiding behind the bend.  That is even more troubling. 

Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including a two-volume history of the presidency, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, and the recently published Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief. He is providing the Jandoli Institute with commentary and analysis about the 2020 presidential campaign.

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