What should candidates have to tell voters about their health?


Science can help explain why presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be nicer to one another.

Clinton photo by Reuters/Whitney Curtis; Trump photo by Reuters/Gary Cameron

In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she has pneumonia, analysts and politicos are again debating a question that has periodically resurfaced in American presidential campaigns: What should candidates be required to tell voters about their health?

If Donald Trump wins the presidency, he will be 70 years old when he assumes office – the oldest person ever elected to a first term. Hillary Clinton, on the day of her potential inauguration, would be 69 – the second oldest, just a few months younger than Ronald Reagan was in January 1981.

Yet despite their relatively advanced age, Clinton and Trump have both declined to follow the example of most recent presidential nominees and release a full medical history. In July of 2015, the Clinton camp released a fairly descriptive two-page document from her doctor indicating her conditions include hypothyroidism and seasonal pollen allergies. That December, Trump released a four-paragraph note from his doctor apparently written in about five minutes, arguing that he would be the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Later asked how he could justify that hyperbole, the doctor said “I like that sentence to be quite honest with you and all the rest of them are either sick or dead.”

While Clinton’s medical episode on September 11 and the campaign’s disclosure of her being diagnosed with pneumonia made headlines, Trump’s health has also come under scrutiny. He taped an interview on Dr. Oz’s daytime talk show on Wednesday to shed more light on his daily fitness routine and general health.

Concerns about the overall health of candidates have been a trademark of American politics. Some former presidents and others seeking office have opted to hide their ailments from the American public.

FDR was diagnosed with polio 12 years before he became president in 1933. His disability could hardly be hidden in public appearances, but the press helped by agreeing not to publish photos of him in a wheelchair. Those who didn’t were allegedly blocked by his secret service agents.

In 1955, just two years into his presidency, Dwight D. Eishenhower suffered from a heart attack and was in the hospital for seven weeks. His press secretary James Hagerty overloaded the press with so many unrelated health details that he was able to distract them from Eisenhower’s heart attack. According to the 1984 book Straight Stuff, “He told the reporters what the president had for breakfast, lunch and dinner… He went into excruciating detail about some vegetable that Eisenhower’s valet, Sergeant John Moaney, had made for him.” The following year, Eisenhower was elected to his second term.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy denied allegations that he suffered from Addison’s disease after his opponent’s aides leaked the information. JFK also suffered from back difficulties, and according to his doctor’s records, he was frequently seen by physicians. Before press conferences and televised events, he received cortisone injections to help with added stress. JFK dismissed questions about his doctor’s injections, saying, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”

During his first run in 1992, Bill Clinton refused to release his health records which prompted the New York Times’ doctor-reporter Lawrence K. Altman to investigate. He declared that Clinton  was “less forthcoming about his health than any presidential nominee in the last 20 years.”

Then in 1996, Bob Dole challenged Clinton by releasing detailed medical records and even made his doctor available for an interview. The White House then released 11 pages of doctors’ letters summarizing Clinton’s health. He even did a sit-down interview with Altman and told him “The public has a right to know the condition of the president’s health.”

Even some candidates who never made it to the Oval Office have faced questions about whether they were healthy enough for the job.

Paul Tsongas was a Massachusetts senator who in 1984 announced that, due to the demands of his treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphona, he wouldn’t be running for a second term. He came back in 1992 as a challenger for Bill Clinton, he won the New Hampshire primary but dropped out soon thereafter. Tsongas had a recurrence of cancer and he later died in 1997.

The 2008 presidential campaign brought another conversation about presidential health when John McCain, also a cancer survivor, became one of the oldest people to ever be nominated by a major party. In fact, about one-third of voters at the time thought that McCain was too old to be president. His health was called into question, and McCain ended up allowing journalists to see his detailed health records.