WASHINGTON — If Americans had known how sick Franklin D. Roosevelt had become by 1940, would they have voted to give him an unprecedented third term as president? What about his fourth, which lasted three months and ended with his death?
Who knows, but at least voters would have had the information necessary to make a rational choice.
Instead, most Americans voting in the 1940 election were unaware that the polio victim had astronomical blood pressure, a condition he could do little to combat outside rest, diet and exercise.
And he did diet, if one doesn’t count the martinis he drank every evening and the innumerable cigarettes he consumed from morning until bedtime. As for exercising, he was mostly confined to a wheelchair, though he occasionally swam and walked using iron braces.
By the time he reached the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, he was mentally and physically unable to hold his own with Joseph Stalin, leaving British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to fend for himself. Churchill’s frantic efforts failed to stave off policies that effectively enhanced the spread of Soviet domination and communism in Eastern Europe and resulted in the prolonged Cold War.
None of this was evident to the American people, of course, and the deception was aided and abetted by the press, which participated in the conspiracy to shield the president. For instance, he was never photographed with his wheelchair in sight.
Those of us who were children at the time were aware he had suffered from polio but knew little about its continuing impact on him. To us, he was a father figure who, when he made the rare decision to relax, played and romped in a swimming pool in Georgia.
Roosevelt’s case is probably the most glaring example of deception regarding a president’s health in the history of the office, but there have been numerous other White House occupants who have hidden the truth about their health, fearing the full story would hurt their electability.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were two such men.
The stress of World War II took its toll on Eisenhower, leaving him with a damaged heart, among other things. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease and several other debilitating ailments, but he was presented as an energetic, athletic figure thanks to a mainly adoring press.
Hillary Clinton’s recent bout with pneumonia, if that is truly what it was, seems to have left the public consciousness for at least the time being. But the fact that she has had several serious blood clots over the last decade could become an issue. Her own anemic efforts to avoid revealing any health problems, including the pneumonia, were thwarted by cameras showing her knees buckling as she had to be lifted into a limousine, an episode that only added to her veracity problems.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, apparently is determined to obfuscate his own physical condition — healthy or otherwise — concentrating instead in the past and probably the future on Clinton’s. He did release a short letter from a doctor saying that he had no health issues. This was not backed up with elaboration.
In this fast-paced global culture, Americans have every right to know with some certainty that the person they choose to install as their commander in chief and head of government has at least an average chance of surviving the term and is not subject to mental or physical problems that could impact crucial decisions.
Are our chief executives operating with hindrance of chronic pain, as Kennedy apparently was? Are they hiding a severe condition that might strike at any moment, as Roosevelt and Eisenhower did?
Both major candidates have an obligation to voters to release full and detailed reports pertaining to their overall health.
Quite clearly, Woodrow Wilson’s exhaustive stumping for congressional approval of U.S. membership in the League of Nations after World War I helped bring about the massive stroke that left him unable to function through the rest of his second term. Was there some weakness that could have been diagnosed and treated earlier? Who knows. The fact is his wife operated as president for too long because of a vice president who allowed it and a Congress and public kept in the dark.
Dan Thomasson, a Hoosier native and Franklin College trustee, is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.