Politics of Health Records

7 weeks out from Election Day, and this was a big one. To recap: Hillary Clinton deviated 47% from the stump with the ever-hashtagable “basket of deplorables” comment, Colin Powell took the latest hit from DC Leaks, and Donald Trump finally backed off his birther theory (before dumping the blame on Clinton).

Trump did have one #winning moment, though – Clinton has indeed been feeling a little weak.

In the 24 hours after a cringe-worthy video hit Twitter, showing the former Senator of New York being lifted into her Secret Service van after the 9/11 anniversary memorial, explanations from her camp ranged from “allergies” to “overheating.” Because we all bought that one, HillaryClinton.com later posted letters from both Clinton and running-mate Tim Kaine’s physicians; Friday, two days before her near-collapse and one before #basketofdeplorables, Clinton was diagnosed with mild non-contagious pneumonia.

Trump showed some rare restraint and let the news cycle run its course (no one tweeted “told you so!”). But I have to hand it to him, this looked like some voodoo sh*t. Less than a month ago, Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani brought the Clinton health conspiracy back into play by imploring FOX viewers to just google it, an attack that left most liberal pundits shaking their heads. But lo and behold, the next week’s Labor Day coughing fit ended up as just a soft open for another one of those very real problems she’d hoped to avoid. Clinton took three days off the campaign trail, and seemed ready to get back to work at a Thursday press conference in Greensboro, NC.

None of that should add legitimacy to Trump’s charges. Pneumonia (while a little more than the flu, Bill) hardly makes someone “unfit” for the presidency. But alas.

There’s this current of fear that I don’t quite understand: a fear of presidential candidates being too frail to last out their term, or hiding life-threatening conditions that could leave us with a swing-state sweetheart or token-ethnic vice president taking the Oval Office. I did watch The West Wing, and Sarah Palin never made me more comfortable with John McCain (let alone his age), but I look at Clinton and even Trump with little doubt they have the energy for the job. Bernie seemed to attract voters with his age (75), and just how well he defied it.

The Post’s Joel Achenbach and Lilian Cunningham answered a few questions for me about the real Jed Bartlets, the couple hours George W. Bush turned power over to Dick Cheney (eight years?), and the last president to die in office (FDR). And Ruth Marcus in the Opinions section dove into the pros and cons of full medical disclosure, where she raised some intriguing questions:

Consider some scenarios. A future female presidential candidate has had an abortion. The decision to terminate her pregnancy has no bearing on her health but could be politically explosive and is, in any event, a decision that she should be able to choose to keep private.

Or she has a history of miscarriages, about which she has never spoken publicly. Or a male candidate has a low sperm count or other problem that made it difficult for him to father a child and led the couple to use artificial insemination, something they have not previously revealed. Or he has erectile dysfunction. Are we really comfortable forcing such facts into public view?

Marcus also digs into the matter of mental health: is it “relevant or immaterial?” More importantly, who should do the sorting between the two? I agree with her appeal to objectivity, an independent physician who could assess both candidates and release only the pertinent findings. And that’s certainly not a job for the American public.

I say I don’t understand this fear because I put most of this information in the “immaterial” camp – probably naive, but to me FDR died awhile ago. What bothers me is the whitewater it creates, in this instance something Clinton is all-too familiar with. Because, does Clinton’s pneumonia alarm anyone not in Trump’s…basket? Sure, but not because she may not recover:


Axelrod’s dig captures the exasperation I and many other Clinton supporters can feel with her campaign, a collective sigh followed by a half-hearted defense. There’s the steady leak from her State Department emails, the ambiguous dark cloud around the Clinton Foundation, and now more meat for the narrative of her “health issues.” All of these have become major distractions, one “scandal” emerging as another finishes its week in the news cycle, and all could be better handled if Clinton just bit the bullet and accepted something: what may seem unimportant to her, could be crucial to supporters and opponents alike.

Marcus’ scenarios all invoke a dread of the disastrous stories that’d emerge if, say, Hillary Clinton had an abortion or Donald Trump had that low sperm count. That stuff is immaterial. The mental health arena is murkier; as Marcus writes, “Do we really want to establish disincentives for would-be presidents…to seek appropriate help?” But these letters from family physicians and Dr. Oz show appearances are only less and less convincing, and this latest leak phenomenon only compounds the problem. What we the public are left with is too much of the wrong information, and too little direction from a horserace-driven media to take an objective look at what it means to be “fit” for the presidency.


Achenbach, Joel, and Lillian Cunningham. “The Hidden History of Presidential Disease, Sickness and Secrecy.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 12 Sept. 2016. Web.

Marcus, Ruth. “When It Comes to Health, Treat Candidates Like Presidents.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 16 Sept. 2016. Web.

2 thoughts on “Politics of Health Records

  1. fitfortakeoffblog says:

    This is a very interesting and thoughtful article, especially as the elections draw nearer. I was actually pondering upon this topic myself, after seeing a video of Clinton post-pneumonia scare, saying “I’m glad my pneumonia finally got some Republicans interested in women’s health.”

    I thought it was interesting how you didn’t understand the fear of the public regarding if our President would be able to last their term. The way I interpreted it, the fear most likely belongs to how the rest of the international world perceives us. Would countries automatically claim the United States as “too weak” to be participating in international affairs?

    I do agree with you, however, that the American public does have a misconstrued image of what it means to be “fit” for the presidency, in part due to the “horse-driven media” direction we are given. Do we associate “fit” with a sound mind or body, or are we dismissing these definitions, and instead replacing them with an ambiguous definition that is associated with personal accomplishments as candidates…

    Very interesting topic, great job!


  2. Emily Barham says:

    This whole issue with Hilary Clinton’s health really goes back to one thing: she is a woman. This entire line of rhetoric regarding Clinton not being strong enough to be president would never happen against a male candidate for president. While, yes, the video of her getting into the car is worrisome it seems more to me like she was just tired and perhaps a little sick but just like with her email scandal its easy to continue a line of attack when there is an underlying belief already established.


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