How Health Concerns Historically Have Played a Role in Elections

Any time we read about Chris Christie’s weight loss exploits, it is always tied to his presumed attempt at the 2016 presidential race. After shedding over 85 pounds, he would not even come close to Taft’s 300 pound stature — yet American’s are still intrigued by his health issues as a possible major contender in national politics.

Every major candidate with potential health problems has had their medical records under scrutiny for the past several decades. While Eisenhower was the first to give full access to his medical conditions to the American people, the fear of our leaders damaging the office by medical problems goes further back. In particular, the health issues of Presidents Cleveland, Wilson, and Roosevelt set the stage for America’s current scrutiny.

While the Twenty-Second Amendment was designed to help eliminate the potential for popular presidents to die in office, future occurrences of hidden health problems (like the true extent of President Reagan’s condition after the assassination attempt) continued to fuel public concern.

Historically, Americans have good reason to be concerned. President Cleveland was so worried about creating an economic crisis that he hid having cancer and subsequent surgery. Surgery was performed in secret on the presidential yacht and when a Philadelphia newspaper tried to report the event it was quickly and quietly quashed.

The cancer did effect his performance on the job. Cleveland stayed hidden from the public and government for most of the summer, yet still made his deadline defending the big bank gold policies he was afraid that his vice-president would have derailed.

Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt’s health problems ushered in the “First Lady President” principle. Both of these presidents became so ill that many of “their” decisions (as later found out) had been made by the First Lady.

Prior to President Eisenhower, the media was fairly respectful of the president’s health conditions. George Washington might have been the least healthy of all the presidents — either having or living through at least 9 separate deadly diseases of the time, yet he is definitely considered one of our strongest presidents.

About the only “health” issue ever discussed in the media during a campaign was challengers accusing each other of being alcoholics (going back to some of the earliest campaigns) — which was definitely more of a smear tactic than a legitimate expose.

In fact, the media was so outright respectful of the candidate’s privacy that there are only three known photographs of President Roosevelt seated in a wheelchair — something that the modern media would not hesitate to report or exploit to their own advantage.

President Roosevelt’s death early in his fourth term was directly responsible for the creation of the Twenty-Second Amendment. He had entered the presidency as a relatively healthy (though paralyzed) 50 year old — yet the tolls of the office eventually took their effect on his body.

But the real problem was that, for the most part, no one really knew the extent of his health problems when he ran for office the third and fourth time. This left a profound impact on the psyche of the American public — that the presidency was a younger man’s career.

All but 10 presidents have been under 60 years old at the time of election — of those, only 8 were able to complete their term in office. This fact, while probably not well known, is still implicitly understood by the American public.

While Bill Clinton was one of the youngest president’s elected, Hillary Clinton would be the second oldest if elected. But does this really matter?

People’s lifespans and careers are expanding at a faster pace each year. Ten thousand people turn sixty-five each day in the United States and within just a few short years, the over 65 population will be the largest distinct age group.

The age scrutiny that Ron Paul, Bob Dole, and John McCain all faced is probably going to become more of a thing of the past.

What does seem to be politically damaging are mental health issues and preventable diseases (like obesity). Senator Dan Patrick, running for lieutenant governor in Texas, had medical records leaked in May of a suicide attempt — and while his poll numbers have not plummeted, it definitely put him on the defensive.

It is quite possible that the attention that Christie has been given is just a reflection of the American consciousness of our growing epidemic of preventable diseases. If this is the case, it will be an uphill battle for any candidate struggling with those issues.