It started with a coughing fit over the Labour Day weekend, and after a dizzy spell during a 9/11 memorial on Sunday, Hillary Clinton‘s campaign team had to come clean. The Democratic presidential nominee is being treated for pneumonia.
It’s a relatively minor illness when you consider the long list of possible ailments that could have affected the 68-year-old former secretary of state.
But the confirmation that she was sick at all is one the Clinton campaign would rather have avoided, said Ryan Hurl, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
“Given the unexpected tightness of the campaign … at some point they made a strategic decision that perhaps the health issues are not so severe, that it’s something that is possible to keep a lid on,” Hurl said.
“Unfortunately for them, it feeds into this broader sense that the Clinton campaign has a problematic relationship with the truth.”
Clinton’s pneumonia dominated the U.S. media coverage on Monday, laying bare the fact that for Americans, the health of presidential candidates is critical. After all, they have a long history of unhealthy people vying for (or carrying out) the nation’s top job.
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That history stretches back a century to former president Woodrow Wilson, who collapsed during a visit to Pueblo, Colorado in 1919. A short time later, back in Washington, he would suffer a stroke that brought him to the brink of death and incapacitated him for several months. His condition was kept secret.
A few decades later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected to a fourth term in the 1940s in spite of the fact that he was clearly ill and experiencing heart problems during the campaign. Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955, but was still re-elected the next year.
Then came Thomas Eagleton, who withdrew from the 1972 vice-presidential race after being hospitalized for depression.
Even John F. Kennedy, a famously energetic political figure, battled Addison’s Disease and secretly took a plethora of drugs to cope with various physical problems during his presidency.
According to Hurl, these examples are probably too old to be firmly entrenched in America’s collective memory.
“I’m not sure it’s within the historical memory or experiences of most Americans,” he said.
“What’s much more likely to be in people’s historical memories is the problem of Ronald Reagan in his second administration, between 1984 and 1988, where there was a sense that Reagan was no longer at the top of his game, no longer had full command of his faculties and was not necessarily running the show.”
Concerns about the overall health of potential presidents is warranted, Hurl said, because there’s no easy way to remove them from office if their health is merely poor.
The 25th amendment, passed after Wilson, deals with presidents who are clearly unable to “discharge the powers and duties” of the office. The amendment can be invoked if the president makes a written declaration acknowledging they have to step aside, handing power to the vice-president.
If the president doesn’t voluntarily transfer powers and is incapacitated, a vice-president can, with a majority of the cabinet, submit their own written declaration that the president cannot continue in the role. Again, power immediately passes to the vice-president, but as Reagan proved, it’s not always clear if someone is unwell enough to warrant this drastic move.
“Dealing with a president who is not physically capable of dealing with the position, of dealing with the responsibilities of the position, that’s a very, very difficult thing to do,” Hurl said. “So I think (the health of the nominees) is a legitimate question.”