The long history of hiding US presidential illnesses
If Trump is not forthcoming with details of his COVID-19 infection, he won’t be the first president who kept medical secrets.
The US president catches a deadly virus amid a worldwide pandemic and Americans are left in the dark regarding many of the details.
That may sound like a possible scenario involving Donald Trump and his COVID-19 diagnosis but, in reality, it was President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 who kept his bout with the “Spanish flu” under wraps.
Friday, as Donald Trump’s spokespeople say he has “mild symptoms” and that “he is hard at work,” the truth is there’s a lot the public still does not know much about the president’s illness. His physician offered a little more detail Friday afternoon, stating that Trump is being treated with an antibody cocktail. But Trump’s condition is described as “fatigued but in good spirits”. On Friday afternoon, the president was sent to the Walter Reed military hospital.
If the president and his handlers keep the details of his condition close to the vest, it will become yet another presidential health or medical issue where many – or all – of the details were kept from the public.
Among the more notable examples in the past century:
In the case of Wilson, he came down with the flu in April 1919 while he was in France for the Paris Peace Conference. Historians and biographers have unearthed details of his illness in subsequent decades, but Wilson’s administration told reporters at the time that he was simply suffering from a cold, thanks to the Paris rain.
Wilson later that year had a debilitating stroke, yet continued serving as president until his term ended in 1921.
Franklin D Roosevelt
It is well known that President Franklin D Roosevelt suffered from polio and took to great pains to conceal his use of a wheelchair and crutches. What is less well known is that in July 1944, when Roosevelt was running for a record fourth term as president, a doctor who was secretly consulted on his health declared in a secret memo that he would likely die of heart failure before the end of his next term.
“I did not believe that, if Mr. Roosevelt were elected President again, he had the physical capacity to complete his term,” Dr Frank Lahey wrote in a letter that was “witnessed, sealed and placed in safekeeping” until 2011.
“I feel strongly that if he does accept another term, he had a very serious responsibility concerning who is the Vice President,” Lahey continued.
As a result of that recommendation, Roosevelt replaced Henry Wallace, who was unpopular with some Democratic leaders, with Harry Truman as his running mate later that month. Roosevelt died of a cerebral haemorrhage 82 days into his fourth term in 1945.
John F Kennedy
Kennedy, who served from 1961 until his assassination in 1963, suffered from various ailments throughout his life, but most of his illnesses were kept from the public until years after his death.
“After a sickly childhood he spent significant periods during his prep-school and college years in the hospital for severe intestinal ailments, infections, and what doctors thought for a time was leukemia,” Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek wrote in The Atlantic.
“He suffered from ulcers and colitis as well as Addison’s disease, which necessitated the administration of regular steroid treatments. And it has been known for some time that Kennedy endured terrible back trouble.
“After reaching the White House, Kennedy believed it was more essential than ever to hide his afflictions. The day after his election, in response to a reporter’s question, he declared himself in ‘excellent’ shape and dismissed the rumors of Addison’s disease as false,” Dallek wrote.
Dallek went on to point out that even though Kennedy’s health issues did not cause his death, they may have indirectly contributed to it during his assassination.
“On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was, as always, wearing a corsetlike back brace as he rode through Dallas. [Lee Harvey] Oswald’s first bullet struck him in the back of the neck. Were it not for the back brace, which held him erect, the second, fatal shot to the head might not have found its mark.”
March 30, 1981, was a fateful day for the 40th president, as he was the target of an assassination attempt in Washington, DC. It was not until 30 years later that the public found out how close to death Reagan was following that shooting.
White House spokesman David Gergen told reporters shortly after the assassination attempt that “the president walked into the hospital” under his own power. Presidential adviser Lyn Nofziger said the president was conscious and in stable condition. The next day, Vice President George HW Bush said he had visited Reagan and that “his cheeks are rosy … He looks robust.”
What the public was not told is that once Reagan was 20 feet inside the hospital, he collapsed into the arms of his Secret Service agents and the doctors and nurses who attended to him were convinced he was dying, or even dead.
“Doctor doesn’t think he’s going to make it. They all think he’s had a massive coronary, he looks that bad,” Del Quintin Wilber, author of, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, told an audience at the University of Virginia in 2012.
“Reagan, 70 years old, would lose almost half his blood volume on this day,” Wilber continued. “I like to tell people that Reagan’s life came within a split second, a split-second decision and a mere inch. He came that close to dying.”