Hillary Clinton’s fall in New York and absence from the campaign trail will spur a lot of discussion about presidential health, the kind of discussion that inevitably ends up invoking Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. One implied conclusion is that because both presidents are remembered fondly — particularly by Democrats — the dishonesty that was perpetuated about their medical conditions was, in retrospect, a necessary evil.
By 1944, Roosevelt’s poor health was visible enough to make Democratic delegates worry about Vice President Henry Wallace’s taking over the party in the coming years. The rumors about Roosevelt’s health became so loud by that summer that his personal physician called in several doctors to verify his public assessment that the president was in good condition. Publicly, they told voters that Roosevelt was fine, but one of them wrote in a confidential memo that he doubted the president could survive another four years. Roosevelt died in April 1945.
During the first six months of his term, Kennedy suffered stomach, colon, and prostate problems, high fevers, occasional dehydration, abscesses, sleeplessness, and high cholesterol, in addition to his ongoing back and adrenal ailments. His physicians administered large doses of so many drugs that Travell kept a “Medicine Administration Record,” cataloguing injected and ingested corticosteroids for his adrenal insufficiency; procaine shots and ultrasound treatments and hot packs for his back; Lomotil, Metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss; penicillin and other antibiotics for his urinary-tract infections and an abscess; and Tuinal to help him sleep.
But because FDR is remembered as leading the country during World War II, and Kennedy’s presidency is popularly remembered as a national Camelot tragically ended before its time, few see either man as a cautionary tale.
A better example of the potentially tragic consequences of lying about a presidential candidate’s health comes from the much more recent past. In 1992, Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas was one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination. He had been treated for a form of lymph-node cancer, or lymphoma, from 1983 to 1986, but when he ran in 1992, he declared himself “cured.” Tak Takvorian, Tsongas’s doctor at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told reporters, “I’m very confident that he’s fine.”
Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary but lost ground to Bill Clinton and withdrew from the race in March. It did not take long before it became clear that had he won the race, the best-case scenario was that the new president would have faced enormous challenges. In December 1992, he announced that a new growth in his abdomen was cancerous, and he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He spent a good portion of the next four years in hospitals, dealing with complications from the treatment. Had Tsongas been elected in 1992, he would not have lived to the end of his first term: He died on January 18, 1997, two days before Clinton’s second inauguration.It’s scary to contemplate an alternative history where Tsongas won the White House, aided by doctors who misled the public about his condition. Tsongas himself went to some length to make his campaign a cautionary tale after the fact; in late 1992, following his cancer diagnosis, he called on President-elect Clinton to “set up a commission to determine what medical information Presidential candidates must disclose.”
That commission never came to pass, but four years later Clinton disclosed eleven pages of his doctor’s summaries of medical tests, and sat down for a lengthy interview with Lawrence K. Altman of the New York Times discussing his health history. Clinton said that he did not regard the interview about his health as an invasion of his privacy and that “the public has a right to know the condition of the president’s health.”
Now that his wife is running for president, that comment seems to be as forgotten as Tsongas.
— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.