Presidential Medical Histories Usually Kept Secret

Talk in Washington Monday focused on President Bush's health following a fainting spell Sunday. Doctors said the president's momentary collapse from a pretzel getting lodged in the wrong pipe was benign and common, but revisions from the White House as to what happened during the incident kept rumors flying about his condition.

By all measures, Bush is one of the most physically fit leaders ever to reside in the White House. He jogs daily and keeps a treadmill nearby in cases of foul weather or rapid travel.

But if White House aides were eager to deflect attention from the president's health, it wouldn't be the first time. Administrations have a long history of not being up front about the health of the president, and in some instances, have even lied about the severity of the chief executive's condition.

In 1955, a massive heart attack sidelined Dwight D. Eisenhower for seven weeks. Aides eventually acknowledged the severity of the president's condition, but initially told the press it was a "mild coronary thrombosis," a blocked artery.

Six months later, he had to undergo surgery again for a liver problem. In 1957, he had a mild stroke but recovered quickly. His doctor said he thought it was related to an earlier condition he diagnosed during the heart attack but was never treated.

When Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, confusion reigned not only about the line of succession — which Secretary of State Al Haig thought he had a handle on when he claimed to be in control — but about the president's condition, far closer to death than the public knew.

Mortimer Caplin, who served under President Kennedy and has chaired a commission on presidential succession, said White House aides of both parties often withhold the truth about presidential health scares.

"I think that in all instances, it's the idea of protecting the office of the presidency and their own sense of power, whether Republican or Democrats," Caplin, a former IRS commissioner, said.

"They had [Eisenhower] waving all the time. Of course ... waving through a window is not governing."

In the case of Bush's overwhelming pretzel, Caplin gives middling remarks in terms of full disclosure.

"I would sort of give them a B, maybe a B-plus on this. I think that more questions are still to be answered."

In other cases, the White House has been considerably less forthcoming. Grover Cleveland had secret surgery on his jaw, while Woodrow Wilson's stroke left his wife covertly running the government.

Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from polio and in August 1921 was stricken with "infantile paralysis" that left him severely handicapped. Over a period of years he partially rehabilitated himself, building up his strength so that he was able to walk short distances with the aid of crutches and braces, but he conspired with the press to disguise his disability.

Years later, the controversy over his disability even affected discussion of whether to include his wheelchair in a monument to the 32nd president. It was included.

John F. Kennedy hid from reporters and public alike that he suffered chronic back pain as a result of Addison's disease, a glandular disorder.

In 1985, when President Reagan had a malignant colon polyp removed, he informally invoked the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967 after the assassination of President Kennedy to address the line of succession when a president has become so disabled he cannot discharge his duties.

After Reagan gave a letter to Vice President George H.W. Bush announcing his temporary assignment as chief executive, another problem arose.

"Vice President Bush came down from Kennebunkport, was playing some tennis, fell down, and was, for all practical purposes, unconscious for a while," Caplin said. "It was a real question whether there was anybody really 'in charge.'"

Then there's President Clinton, who never released his medical records.

When Clinton suffered a serious though hardly life-threatening tear in his knee tendon at the home of golfer Greg Norman, aides initially and misleadingly dismissed it as a "minor injury." Clinton ended up having surgery and months of rehabilitation.

If White House aides become stingy with the facts after presidential health scares, consider the ramifications of full disclosure. After Eisenhower's heart attack, the stock market fell more than it did in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. It fell Monday, too, but no one sees any relationship between the stock market drop and Sunday's presidential fainting spell.