STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A scholar of presidential history made an observation about the president's health the other day. If he has said less about his condition than many people would like, Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia says this is one time that he is following precedent. Many presidents have obscured their conditions, as we've been learning from NPR senior correspondent Ron Elving. Hey there, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: What makes it hard for a president to just be frank?
ELVING: A president is a man on the world stage, and there are other foreign leaders watching, assessing how certain America is of its leadership. Plus, there's Congress, and they're wondering if the president is still the leader of one party, if he's really calling the shots, who is calling the shots? So there's that curiosity. The American people have every right to know whether or not their leader is up to the job, is operating in full command of his faculties. All of those things the American people expect to know. And let's face it, too. I mean, there is just the need on the part of any individual to show themselves as robust as possible. I think it's fair to say that President Trump is a man who has shown some concern about his own personal image.
INSKEEP: That is a very diplomatic way of putting it. Thank you very much. I want to throw out some names of some past presidents who've had health issues while in office. And let's just run through them; first, Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s.
ELVING: 1893 - Grover Cleveland went on a four-day boat cruise that seemed like a nice thing to do, go fishing for a little while. Along on the cruise were six surgeons, and at one point on the cruise, they operated on the president, put him under full sedation, what they had available in 1893, and they removed a large growth on the roof of his mouth, which was cancerous, also took out part of his upper jaw and some of his teeth. And the public never was informed. Power was never transferred to the vice president or anything of that nature. And this did not come out for some period of time. When it was reported, the president denied it.
INSKEEP: Wow, secret mouth cancer surgery and nobody found out until years later. Let's go now to Woodrow Wilson in the early 1900s.
ELVING: Woodrow Wilson had a series of health problems as president, might have had the Spanish flu in 1919, definitely had a stroke later that year, and that incapacitated him for the last 17 months of his presidency. His wife and his doctor controlled everything that he saw and who got to see him.
INSKEEP: But he just hid out in the White House and people didn't really know this.
ELVING: That is correct. And of course, there were people who knew the president was unwell. They knew that he had had some sort of an episode. But at that time, the powers that be in the Congress were not really in any kind of a position to do anything about it. And there was no means for transferring power to his vice president, a guy named Thomas Marshall, who never tried to insist on it.
INSKEEP: Now, I want to talk about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, of course, he was in a wheelchair after being stricken with polio. But that's in a special category. I want to ask about health problems he had beyond that.
ELVING: Late in his presidency, FDR was suffering from a number of maladies, particularly a heart condition. And people had no idea just how sick he was. People who saw him could see he was not well. And some pictures showed him looking sickly, but no one knew just how close to the end he was. But very shortly after taking the oath of office for the fourth time, in 1945 he died while on a trip to Georgia. And it was such a shock to the country. It was even a shock to his vice president, Harry Truman, who had no idea the president was that close to the end.
INSKEEP: What about Richard Nixon in the 1970s?
ELVING: In Richard Nixon's case, he was suffering from really an emotional breakdown as Watergate reached its final conclusion, and he was about to be forced to resign. As he fought to save his job and fought against impeachment, he was drinking heavily. And this has all been extensively reported since the time. It was not known at the time. But some of his closest aides were really covering for him because he was very close to being incapacitated.
INSKEEP: Weren't there some issues with Ronald Reagan?
ELVING: Ronald Reagan almost died in 1981 just a few weeks after he had become president. He was shot, and the wound was much more serious than was initially disclosed. He lost a great deal of blood and could easily have died that very afternoon. That was not known for a number of years just how serious, how close he came to death. In his second term, he did have a couple of procedures that required him being under full sedation. So power was transferred to his vice president, George H.W. Bush, under a constitutional provision that allows that to happen if the president assents to it and also sets up a structure for taking the power away from the president if he's incapable of actually making that decision.
INSKEEP: OK. So now there's a system for a president to hand over power temporarily if there's an emergency. What if people around him think the president needs to be nudged out of power and there's no interest in going?
ELVING: We haven't had a case of that. And presumably it would involve a president who simply wasn't capable of making a decision. But there is a process. It involves the vice president. It involves the president's Cabinet. And Congress can eventually get involved as well. And then there's a process for giving the power back to the president as long as he regains his abilities.
INSKEEP: In recent decades, hasn't there been a custom that presidents are quite thoroughly checked out and we, the public, receive a pretty thorough report on their medical condition?
ELVING: Yes, as candidates, generally speaking, that's true. But after someone actually becomes president, that person then has a great deal of control over who their physician might be and how much of that information might reach the public. What we've had with President Trump has been a succession of presidential physicians who praise his conditions to the sky and tell us that everything is fine and are seemingly rather uncritical about the president's physical condition. And certainly that has been true in the past several days with his current team.
INSKEEP: NPR senior correspondent Ron Elving, good health to you.
ELVING: Thank you, Steve, and to you.
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