Ill Presidents Are As American As Apple Pie

The video on Sunday of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wobbling and nearly falling at a 9/11 memorial outside One World Trade Center has seemingly given credence to the conspiracy theory that the former Secretary of State's health is failing. Yes, the visual of Clinton looking woozy on a New York City sidewalk is certainly going to play badly, especially as it airs and re-airs on the news. However, she's far from the first presidential candidate to campaign with health problems — nor would she be the first president to govern with them.

In fact, reviewing the medical history of U.S. presidents reveals that few of our commanders-in-chief haven't battled some malady or another. Clinton's recent diagnosis of pneumonia puts her in good company: George Washington came down with the illness during his first term in 1790. To add insult to (literal) injury, he also had carbuncle, "a bump on his face that some thought was a cancerous tumor," Dr. Howard Markel told PBS. "But it could have been caused by streptococcal or staphylococcal. We just don't know. If it was melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, we still don't have good treatments for that."

But you don't have to go back to Washington's time to find presidents with health problems. Even those serving in the White House in the 20th and 21st Centuries have had their medical struggles. Woodrow Wilson, who governed from 1913 to 1921 and saw the country through World War I, had a near-fatal stroke while in office. During a national tour to promote the League of Nations, Wilson collapsed in Colorado in 1919, and upon returning to Washington D.C., suffered a stroke. Wilson's wife "blamed Republican opponents in Congress," but ultimately, the problems relating to the president's health were largely kept secret. As The Washington Post noted, "the public was largely left in the dark about Wilson's condition. The official White House line was that the president was suffering from 'nervous exhaustion.'"

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Warren G. Harding had a fatal heart attack while in office, and Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered not only a heart attack in 1955, but had an abdominal operation in 1956 and a stroke in 1957. Bob Woodward's book, Veil, details the presidency of Ronald Reagan and how in the immediacy following an assassination attempt in 1981, the president was "able to work or remain attentive only an hour or so a day."

Of course, two of the best examples of presidential health cover-ups come from arguably the two most famous presidents of the 20th Century. Though knowledge of of Franklin D. Roosevelt's polio and images of him in his wheelchair are ubiquitous, at the time of his presidency, the extent of Roosevelt's illness was not well known. This was aided in large part from the fact that all four of Roosevelt's campaigns occurred before television became widespread. His polio was only one of several illnesses afflicting the president, and one of his doctors even wrote a memo in 1944 claiming that Roosevelt wouldn't survive his final presidency. Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term, in April 1945.


The other great example of concealed presidential health is John F. Kennedy. The president, who was known for his youth and vitality, suffered from colitis, prostatitis, and Addison's disease, an endocrine disorder. JFK took a wealth of drugs to keep him going, including codeine, methadone, Demerol, Ritalin and barbiturates.

Most of these events, of course, occurred before the obsessive-compulsive 24-hour news cycle. Moreover, since 1992, we've enjoyed a succession of young, relatively healthy two-term presidents (yes, it's weird to think of George W. Bush as young, but he was 54 when he took office — 15 years younger than Clinton and 16 years younger than Donald Trump). And while the Clinton collapse visual isn't great, we can all agree on one thing: at least she didn't vomit on the Japanese Prime Minister.