To Tell or Not? Disclosing Candidate Health Issues

During his first run for the White House in 2000, Republican John McCain released details about his bout with melanoma. And he has promised to release his full health records soon. No word so far from Democratic hopefuls Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton on their health records.

Historically, candidates have evaded questions about their own health — or even lied.

Back in 1992, former Sen. Paul Tsongas was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. The case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma he had in the 1980s wasn't a factor, he assured the country.

"I went through the bone marrow transplant over five years ago, and five years is the standard definition of cured," he told reporters. "But the fact is, I've been out there for almost nine months, much longer than anybody else, and it has not affected my capacity to campaign."

His doctors — even under direct questioning — denied the lymphoma had returned ... until after Tsongas dropped out of the race.

Tsongas was dead within three years.

Political scientist Rose McDermott of the University of California at Santa Barbara points out that it was the vice president's spot that would have been the really important one on a Tsongas ticket.

"He started chemo the day he would have been inaugurated had he been elected," she said. "He would have died in office."

Concealing Weakness

The lack of disclosure of Tsongas' health problems wasn't at all unusual, according to presidential historian Robert Dallek.

"The candidates are very leery about letting on to any weakness, any flaws, because they are so afraid that it will bring them down," he said.

He's got a long list of historical examples. When Woodrow Wilson ran in 1912, "he'd already had a series of small strokes."

Toward the end of Wilson's second term, he had a stroke that left him totally disabled. His wife essentially ran the White House for 18 months.

In 1893, President Grover Cleveland hid his jaw cancer. He had surgery on a yacht floating on New York's East River. People were told he was on a mini-vacation.

Franklin Roosevelt hid the fact that his legs were paralyzed after a bout with polio. Even though a lot of people had polio back then, McDermott said, Roosevelt asked friends and advisers to help him keep it secret.

"He thought he couldn't get elected if people thought he couldn't walk. He was very, very clear that the nation didn't want a crippled president while they felt crippled by the economy," McDermott said.

Roosevelt didn't allow himself to be photographed in his wheelchair. He "walked" by leaning on his aides or his sons.

Kennedy's Medical History

The candidate with perhaps the thickest medical chart was John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy suffered from Addison's disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands, as well as back problems for which he was on constant painkillers.

"He also had terrible allergies for which he took all sorts of antihistamines," Dallek said. And Kennedy had a recurring prostate inflammation.

"In the 1950s he was hospitalized nine times, once for 19 days, a couple of times for seven days, a couple of times three days at a time. It was never revealed to the public," he said.

During the Democratic convention in 1960, opponent Lyndon Johnson raised questions about Kennedy's Addison's disease, which doctors were only just learning to control. Kennedy's people brought out a physician who said the health problems were over, when in fact, he had to add steroids to his long list of daily medications; the condition plagued him throughout his life.

What happened to Thomas Eagleton 12 years after Kennedy's campaign shows how sensitive the public can be to a candidate's health issues. Democrat George McGovern picked Eagleton for his vice presidential running mate. Word got out that Eagleton had been treated for depression, with electroshock therapy.

"On three occasions in my life, I have voluntarily gone into hospitals as result of nervous exhaustion and fatigue," Eagleton said at the time. "As a younger man, I must say, I drove myself too far, and I pushed myself terribly hard, long hours, day and night."

Two and a half weeks after he was nominated, Eagleton withdrew from the race, saying he didn't want to hurt the Democratic Party.

Making It Work

While health information might knock someone off a ticket or lose an election, health problems — even serious ones — don't necessarily ruin a presidency. For example, most medical experts agree that Abraham Lincoln had depression.

And McDermott says that while Roosevelt's polio may have left his legs paralyzed, it was good for the public.

"Prior to coming down with polio, you'll see reports of people calling him condescending or patronizing or snooty. You see these descriptions of him are quite at variance with the person he became as president," she says.

Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, said his struggles with polio are what made him so sensitive to the problems of poverty.

Over the years there have been calls for presidential candidates to be evaluated by independent physicians, with the results released to the public. Those calls have gone nowhere.

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