Commentary: Presidential health matter of national security

When a United States citizen files to become a candidate for federal office and the Office of the President, that person is required to submit two documents for consideration: personal income and periodic disclosures of campaign finances.

Any requirement for details of the candidate’s health are not in play because this is considered an invasion of privacy. Some potential federal applicants voluntarily submit reports from their personal physicians. But the voters must determine, mostly from what they can see, whether each person is capable of serving in that office.

History has a way of revealing how this lack of knowledge on the voters’ part can lead to some hairy situations during the terms served by a supposedly healthy president.

George Washington suffered from a laundry list of ailments, from malaria, tuberculosis and dysentery. Before he became this country’s first chief executive officer, he had served as aide to British General Edmond Braddock. On July 9, 1755, he rode into battle with General Braddock, suffering through the ride with pillows strapped to his saddle. He lost two horses during that battle, eventually crawling on hands and knees to get reinforcements, and came home a wasted individual. During the American Revolution, his health seemed better, but his miseries continued throughout the rest of his life.

Some of the revealed plots to cover up the illness of a sitting president would serve, and I am sure have already been used, as fodder for several books. Grover Cleveland smuggled a team of surgeons onto a yacht to perform surgery for oral cancer, under the guise of a fishing trip.

Woodrow Wilson should not have been considered for the presidency at all. His health going into office was so poor that his subsequent massive heart attack was almost a given; for two years of his term, he was unable to perform the duties of his office and the federal government took over that task (with a good deal of help from wife Edith). Franklin D. Roosevelt spent years and a lot of effort to hide his paralysis and deteriorating health from the public.

More recently, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a (supposedly) vital young man who carried the hopes and dreams of Americans on his capable shoulders, chose to suppress health information concerning his Addison’s disease. His father, Joe Kennedy, concocted a story of JFK’s back injury being the result of his son’s heroic PT 109 incident during World War II so the real reason would not be of concern to those who looked closely at JFK’s health.

He also suffered from osteoporosis of the lower back, which deterred him from reaching for items or even putting on his socks. Colitis and prostatitis plagued him. A revelation of the list of drugs JFK took daily rivals any seen in the sad drug-overdose cases of high-profile entertainers.

While annual checkups are the norm for a sitting president, these are best taken with a grain of salt. After all, the patient is the most powerful elected official in the land, and a misstep might have dire consequences for the physician performing the annual review.

I think we all have admiration for these stalwart individuals who stay the course when they might prefer to sit out the daily crises because of personal pain. Few people of any walk of life can know what ailment may befall them in the coming years. But one has to wonder how the drugs necessary for a president to just get out of bed in the morning and go about his duties affect the outcome of those crises of the day. JFK’s non-treatment of his Addison’s disease, which affects how the human body handles stress, may have weighed heavily on decisions made during the Bay of Pigs crisis.

A few years back, a proposal was considered to request an independent health report from every person running for office. This idea was shot down for two reasons: the aforementioned invasion-of-privacy consideration, and the possibility that the examining physician could be a member of the opposite party — horrors, a Republican doctor certainly would not give a pass to a Democratic candidate! So, we are left with no advance warning of illness going into the presidency, only reports leaking out while that official is in office.

But we have the last word, or rather, can get it from our present-day diligent press. No more hiding those pesky health problems from us. Of course, once they are disclosed — what can we do about them?

Evelyn L. Pearson lives in Camden.

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