Commentary Magazine


RE: Sorry, Chris, Your Health Is Our Business

I fully agree with Jonathan that the health of high public officials is very much the people’s business. But Chris Christie certainly has a large number of presidential precedents on which to base his attempt to keep his stomach surgery secret.

In the summer of 1893, Grover Cleveland had a cancer removed from his upper jaw in such secrecy that the operation was performed on a friend’s yacht while it cruised Long Island Sound. Cleveland was afraid that the news, if it got out, might add to the panic in the financial markets that had plunged the country into depression a few months earlier.

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke that left him physically paralyzed and, in the words of one historian, “Wilson’s emotions were unbalanced, and his judgment was warped….Worse, his denial of illness and limitations was starting to border on delusion.” The severity of Wilson’s impairment was kept secret and his wife kept even the vice president and cabinet members away from him. She would relay questions to him and then give his answers. Whether they were his answers or, in fact, hers, can’t be known.

FDR’s paralysis was minimized with the help of a vast journalistic conspiracy. He was hardly ever photographed in his wheel chair. And his rapidly deteriorating health in 1944 and ’45 was likewise kept secret. His blood pressure was so high by that time that it couldn’t be measured, as blood pressure cuffs in those days only measured up to a systolic pressure of 350 mmHg. Anything above 180 is considered a crisis.

President Kennedy, who radiated an image of vigor and good health, was in fact, a very sick man for much of his adult life. His back pain from collapsed vertebrae was so severe that he took amphetamine shots to control it. He could barely climb a flight of stairs and couldn’t put on his own socks. In one 2 1/2 year period in the mid-1950s, when he was a senator, he was secretly hospitalized nine times.

One of the good things to come out of the Watergate scandal, perhaps, was the disappearance of the journalistic assumption of  a presidential right to privacy.

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