Consider that many of our greatest presidents have had health concerns and still have served brilliantly. The real focus on candidates’ health therefore should not be strictly on some physical or mental criteria for serving, but rather on the public’s right to know.
Some of our greatest presidents served brilliantly despite health concerns. FDR’s heroic battle with polio has inspired disabled people for generations. John F. Kennedy served unflinchingly while suffering from chronic back ailments. Ronald Reagan returned to the Oval Office less than a month after he was nearly killed by a gunman.
But in many cases, our presidents kept their condition at least partly a secret. FDR also had heart disease; he died of a brain hemorrhage three months into his fourth term, leaving the Manhattan Project and the ending of World War II to his unprepared vice president. Dwight D. Eisenhower also had heart disease; he had a heart attack while in office in 1955. JFK hid the extent of his back problems, and it wasn’t revealed until years after his death that he took steroids daily for Addison’s Disease.
But times have changed. We are living in an age of information, and the more the better. Secrecy causes problems. If the president — or even a candidate for president — has a health condition, the public has the right to know.
Even Jed Bartlet, the fictional president on TV’s “The West Wing,” wrestled with revealing his condition before concluding that the public deserved to know.
Public anxiety over the health of presidential candidates, especially those over 65, rose to its highest level in 2008. John McCain, who was 71 with an extensive history of melanoma, received a lot of pressure from the media and finally felt compelled to release his entire medical record — over 1,100 pages — for a private viewing of reporters and physicians, myself among them.
In the current election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both over 65 years old. And though at least one of them, Clinton, has a fairly extensive health history, neither she nor Donald Trump has released a full set of records.
Last week’s summary letters from their personal physicians provided useful and reassuring information in terms of their vital signs, heart tests and basic lab work. In Clinton’s case, it also provided a detailed account of her rapid recovery from a community acquired pneumonia.
Trump is overweight, enjoys fast food and takes a cholesterol lowering statin drug. Clinton has sinus and allergy trouble and takes thyroid medicine along with Coumadin (a blood thinner) because of her history of blood clots, most recently a Transverse Sinus Thrombosis (in the brain’s outside drain) in 2012.
But these records didn’t tell the whole story. Missing were an explanation of Clinton’s fainting or near-fainting spells and the actual records of her concussion and blood clot in 2012, though Dr. Lisa Bardack, her internist, did report in a 2015 letter that follow-up neurological tests in 2013 were normal and that the clot was gone. Bardack also noted in her current letter that a CT scan of the brain six months ago was normal.
Dr. Harold N. Bornstein’s brief letter about Trump last week did provide important normal test results but did not provide a detailed chronological record of the candidate’s health issues over the years.
It was an honor and a privilege to be allowed to see inside the life and health of John McCain in 2008, though I never expected I would find evidence of a melanoma recurrence eight years after the cancer was removed. Still, his history was enough of a reason to have a look. The process taught me and 21 other journalists and physicians a lot about the candidate and his health.
It was courageous of McCain to allow us to look. I would like the same privilege and opportunity now with Clinton and Trump because of their age OR health history.
As with McCain, I don’t expect to find a problem. But if there is one, the public should know. Overcoming health concerns is relatable. It makes you stronger. It isn’t something to hide.