What Presidents Do and Don’t Say About Their Health
Americans are naturally curious about the health of their president, and any sign of illness or frailty gets subjected to intense public scrutiny. That was not always the case. The U.S. presidency has a checkered history with truth and disclosure when it comes to infirmity and maladies, especially with potentially serious situations such as President Donald Trump contracting Covid-19.
1. How much must presidents disclose about medical conditions?
There are no legal requirements imposed on the president to inform the public about his or her health. Modern-day presidents have traditionally been quite open with details, however. Barack Obama released full details of his health checks, including one in March 2016, shortly before he was due to leave office. George W. Bush also shared detailed medical reports.
2. What do we know about Trump’s general health?
Trump, who turned 74 in June and was the oldest U.S. president to be sworn in for a first term, is not quite as forthcoming with details about his health. The most recent report from his doctor, released in June, said Trump “remains healthy,” also remains obese as measured by his body-mass index, and had reduced his total cholesterol level to 167, within the normal range, by taking 40 milligrams daily of the statin rosuvastatin, more widely known under the brand name Crestor. But an unannounced, and still mostly unexplained, visit to a Washington-area hospital in November 2019 still prompts speculation that he had a health problem. Trump, perhaps inadvertently, fueled that speculation with a Sept. 1 tweet denying “having suffered a series of mini-strokes.”
3. Which other presidents have had health scares?
After Ronald Reagan survived an assassin’s bullet in 1981, there were divergent accounts of how badly he had been affected. Bob Woodward, in his 1987 book “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987,” wrote that after being released from the hospital, Reagan “could concentrate for only a few minutes at a time, then he faded mentally and physically,” and that his top aides “were intent on protecting this terrible secret and their own uncertainty” about whether his presidency could continue. During his second term, Reagan had a cancerous tumor removed from his abdomen and four small polyps removed in a colonoscopy and also underwent prostate surgery, full details of which were given to the media. After his presidency ended in 1989, there was debate about whether he had been in the early stages of the Alzheimer’s disease that afflicted his later years. More notorious instances of presidential ailments being kept quiet are from decades ago.
4. What are the more notorious cases?
When Woodrow Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1919 while campaigning on behalf of the League of Nations, the fact of his illness was announced but the severity of his condition was withheld by his wife, Edith, and the White House doctor. For the rest of Wilson’s term, Edith acted as a gatekeeper for all communication with him; some historians say she should be considered the first woman president. Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio in 1921 and became paralyzed from the waist down. The fact of his illness was well known during his four terms as president, but he worked to project an image of a healthy and active person who had made more of a recovery than in fact he had. He used leg braces to stand while delivering speeches and asked news photographers not to take pictures of him in his wheelchair. When Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in September 1955, his staff initially described the event as “a digestive upset during the night.” And John F. Kennedy, while projecting an image of youthful vigor, suffered poor health during his short presidency from 1961 to 1963. It was known that he had a bad back – he’d had four spine surgeries before his election — but not that he had chronic digestive problems as well as Addison’s disease, an insufficiency of adrenal function, and that he took as many as eight medications a day.
5. How do other countries approach the issue of the leader’s health?
Most countries release details when needed, but few follow the U.S. example in publishing so much detail. Full details of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hospitalization with Covid-19 in April were released at the time, including during his three-day stay in intensive care, when he was given oxygen but not put on a ventilator. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s health came under close scrutiny in 2019 when she suffered three bouts of trembling in just under a month and was evasive when questioned by the media. One of her predecessors, Helmut Schmidt, who was a heavy smoker, made news when he had a heart pacemaker fitted in 1981, toward the end of his eight-year term as Chancellor. And in France, Francois Mitterrand was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon after his election as president in 1981 but didn’t announce it until he underwent an operation in 1992 while still president, according to the New York Times.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg’s story on Trump’s April 2020 physical examination.
- A Financial Times story on a “long line” of U.S. presidents who concealed health issues.
- More on FDR and polio, Kennedy’s myriad health problems and how Edith Wilson became the “secret president.”
- A New York Times story on French President Francois Mitterrand’s secret battle with prostate cancer.
- Bloomberg Opinion columnist Cass R. Sunstein looks at what happens if Trump is unable to govern.
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