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In Sickness and in Health: Illness in the White House

Exciting times, indeed. The latest bustling instalment in the Clinton-Trump saga of “produce your documents” now goes to the issue of health. The Democratic contender for the White House found herself feeling rather off, which made doctors order that Hillary Clinton take proper “rest”.

It then transpired, according to sources (who is to really know about the Clintons?) that she had been slow off the mark in revealing the diagnosis of pneumonia, a condition that nearly precipitated a fainting spell at a New York memorial ceremony for the September 11, 2001 attacks. On that occasion, Clinton excused herself for feeling “overheated and dehydrated” and required obvious assistance to her van.

“I’m feeling so much better,” she cheerily told CNN on Monday night, “and obviously I should have gotten some rest sooner.” Over the next few days, those medical directives from Dr. Lisa Bardack are set to kick in. Donald Trump, in the meantime, is bound to behave like a merry pig in electoral mud, though he is missing a sparring buddy. “I hope she gets well and gets back on the trail and we’ll be seeing her at the debate.”

The immediate sense about the Clinton campaign was that the veil of secrecy had again been given a few more layers. Rather than releasing material on the subject with speedy resolve, Team Clinton closed ranks, hoping that the press would not feast on an impeding medical bonanza.

Reuters noted that this “health scare revived concerns about a tendency toward secrecy that has dogged her campaign, and underscored the perennial worries about the medical fitness of candidates for one of the world’s most demanding jobs.”

Those running for the White House – and those in it – tend towards hiding the assortment of ailments that could, technically, make them either unelectable or deficient. What had sprung out, notably in this election, is some unwritten obligation to, as one NBC News report put it, “inform the public about her health.”

President Bill Clinton certainly thought so, telling the New York Times in a 1996 interview that the public was entitled “to know the condition of the president’s health.” That particular piece disclosed the president’s battle “with desensitization shots” taken weekly to combat Washington’s notorious tendency to tickle and tease allergies.

The interview may well have been precipitated by the fact that Bill, when a candidate in 1992, had troubles with his voice. Medical opinions started to swarm; speculation about fitness was duly triggered, and has become something of a greater curiosity in recent years. (Witness, for instance, discussion about John Kerry’s triumph against prostate cancer; or Dick Cheney’s heart problems, revealing that even such a dark force can have a troubling ticker.)

That same NBC report digs a bit deeper, asking questions about why hiding such a pneumonia diagnosis was necessary to begin with. Did Clinton, for instance, contract it in the past? The coughing attack last week at an appearance in Cleveland, for instance, was dismissed as a matter of “seasonal allergies”. Did the candidate “lose consciousness at all?”

In all seriousness, the maladies of the White House occupant have been many and fundamental. Healthy, sturdy figures seem oddities. Prior to the First World War, William Taft laboured under morbid obesity, a condition which made him nap during meetings. His successor, the supposedly high-minded visionary, Woodrow Wilson, suffered a series of strokes that left him blind in his left eye and wheelchair bound.

A suitably doped up President John F. Kennedy remained at death’s door for much of his time in office till assassination opened it; Franklin Delano Roosevelt sneakily crafted an image of good, mobile health in the face of polio; and Grover Cleveland took a good four days off to have a tumour removed on a yacht.

Secrecy has become a dull, continuous feature of this presidential battle. Neither candidate has been entirely open to continuous press scrutiny on the trail, or supplying the tips, and trimmings as the important dates are ticked off the calendar.

The idea of “protective pool” coverage is something both find troubling, with Clinton and Trump preferring greater management and staging, with protective guardians. Trump, for instance, has no reporters to accompany him on his plane; Clinton has tended towards a drier pool of correspondents.

Neither candidate seems particularly fit in several ways for the White House, though these have little to do with matters of physique and stamina. Boiling matters down to misogyny and greater scrutiny of Clinton for her supposedly vulnerable sex hardly gets away from the central matter at hand: her unquestionable sense of being unreliable. Only the Clintons could have converted something in the realm of health into a spectacle of secret ponderings and conspiratorial wonder. The crooked timber of humanity continues to creak.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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