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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Medical records are usually a personal matter, but if you're running for president you're health is now considered important for the public to know. During his first run for the White House in 2000, John McCain released details about his bout with melanoma. This time as the presumptive Republican nominee, he's promised to release his full health records soon.

But historically, candidates have evaded questions about their own health. Sometimes they've even lied. As NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Back in 1992, former Senator Paul Tsongas was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. That case of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma he had in the 1980s, he said the potentially deadly cancer was not a factor.

(Soundbite of audio)

Senator PAUL TSONGAS (1992, Democratic presidential candidate): I went through the bone marrow transplant over five years ago, and five years is the standard definition of cured. 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.

SILBERNER: 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 points out that it was the vice president's spot that would have been the really important one on the ticket.

Professor ROSE MCDERMOTT (Political science, University of California at Santa Barbara): He started chemotherapy the day that he would have been inaugurated had he been elected, and he would have died in office.

SILBERNER: The lack of disclosure of Tsongas' health problems wasn't at all unusual, says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Presidential historian): The candidates are very leery about letting on to any weakness, any flaws, because they are so afraid that it will bring them down.

SILBERNER: He's got a long list of historical examples.

Mr. DALLEK: Woodrow Wilson, when he runs in 1912, he had already had a series of small strokes.

SILBERNER: Wilson made it through his first term OK, but towards the end of his second term, he had a stroke that left him totally disabled. His wife essentially ran the White House for 18 months.

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

Professor MCDERMOTT: He thought he couldn't get elected if people thought he couldn't walk. I mean, he was very, very clear that the nation didn't want a crippled president while they felt crippled by the economy.

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

The candidate with perhaps the thickest medical chart was John Kennedy, says Robert Dallek.

Mr. DALLEK: He had Addison's disease. He had terrible back problems, for which he had to be on constant painkillers, because it was so miserable. He had terrible allergies for which he took all sorts of antihistamines.

SILBERNER: He had an inflammation of his prostate that led to periodic fevers and infections.

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

SILBERNER: During the Democratic convention in 1960, opponent Lyndon Johnson raised questions about Kennedy's Addison's disease, a hormonal condition that doctors were only just learning to control. Kennedy's people brought out a physician who said the problems were over with, when in fact, Kennedy had to add steroids to his long list of daily medications.

What happened to Thomas Eagleton 12 years after Kennedy's campaign for the presidency 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. And Eagleton made an announcement.

Mr. THOMAS EAGLETON (Vice presidential running mate): On three occasions in my life, I have voluntarily gone into hospitals as result of nervous exhaustion and fatigue.

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

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

And Rose McDermott says that while Roosevelt's polio may have been a tragedy for him, it was good for the public.

Professor MCDERMOTT: Prior to coming down with polio, you'll see reports of people calling him condescending or patronizing or, you know, snooty. And you see these descriptions of him that are quite at variance with the person he became as president.

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

As a result of all this, there have been occasional calls for presidential candidates to be evaluated by independent physicians, with the results released to the public. Those calls have gone nowhere.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: Find out when presidents and White House hopefuls chose to disclose or to hide their health issues at npr.org.

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