Op-Ed

Presidents and the doctors who cover up for them

President Trump shakes hands with White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson after his first medical checkup as president at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last week.
President Trump shakes hands with White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson after his first medical checkup as president at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last week. AP

Let’s talk about the presidents’ health — not only the one we’ve got now but all of them. Their aches and pains and bumps, and how they’ve tried to hide them, and how the nation spent 12 years looking at photos of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and never knew the man could barely walk.

Driven in part by a desire to never be hoodwinked again, America now keeps a much closer eye on the chief executive’s corporeal being, with the concern we usually reserve for our own children.

Is he sleeping enough? Getting enough exercise? Is his temperature normal? Please describe, in detail, the president’s bowels.

Last week, a strange news conference featuring White House physician Ronny Jackson highlighted this concern. After administering President Trump’s annual physical, Jackson went to the press briefing room’s podium and delivered something more like a love letter than a medical update.

WATCH VIDEO: Presidential doctor tells reporters President Trump is healthy

“I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old. He has incredible genes. . . . I mean, if I didn’t watch what I ate, I wouldn’t have the cardiac and overall health that he has,” Jackson said. Trump had enviable “energy” and “stamina,” Jackson reported, and all of it was “just the way God made him.”

So effusive was the report that when “Saturday Night Live” lampooned it, the dialogue required only moderate modifications to get laughs.

Reporters seemed incredulous. Was it suspect that the notoriously sedentary president’s weight was given as 239, precisely one pound short of qualifying for the “obese” category? His height was provided as 6-foot-3, but a FOIA’d New York driver’s license placed it at 6-foot-2. Was it normal for a 71-year-old man to have a growth spurt?

There was no reason to believe that Jackson, a man hired into the job by Barack Obama, was offering false information — but then again, privacy laws meant that the amount of information he divulged was entirely Trump’s decision.

The relationship between a president and his physician has historically been complicated. And it would hardly be the first time that we didn’t know what we thought we knew about the American presidency — which has been, essentially, a 230-year parade of unwell men.

It was 1893 and the president was sick. Grover Cleveland woke up one morning with a lesion in his mouth and W.W. Keen, a celebrity surgeon of the time, decided that the president had cancer.

The country, meanwhile, was in a financial panic. While Cleveland supported the gold standard, his vice president supported the silver. The death of the president would have caused chaos as the business community tried to figure out which standard would rule. So, over the Fourth of July weekend, the president boarded a yacht in New York bound for Cape Cod, where a surgical team removed five teeth, parts of his jaw, and the upper left part of his palate, all while afloat.

The public, meanwhile, was told that president had a toothache.

The economy had already been unaware, a decade prior, that President Chester Arthur suffered from Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment that killed him a few years after he left office. The economy was also unaware that George Washington nearly died of influenza.

Woodrow Wilson is perhaps the most famous U.S. president to benefit from a euphemistic doctor. When he collapsed due to a serious stroke, his physician, Cary Grayson, released a series of vague, optimistic statements: Wilson was suffering from “exhaustion,” but it was “not alarming.”

Kept quiet because? Because of the country. Of course. Again and again, presidents and their physicians have lied about health because they convinced themselves that the lie was patriotic. The lie was noble. Wilson was the only thing keeping Europe from descending into communism.

And many White House doctors — a title that wasn’t created officially until 1928 — were simply personal friends of the president until they acquired the most visible stethoscope in the land.

“There’s a huge gulf between how we look at medicine now and in, say, the 1950s,” says William Hitchcock, a University of Virginia history professor and author of a forthcoming Eisenhower biography.

There was no Sanjay Gupta in the press briefing room, using his own medical knowledge to fact-check the White House physician’s report. There was no phalanx of talking-head surgeons on CNN. The public would have assumed the president’s health was ultimately a private matter, like extramarital affairs.

And if the public had known better, it’s possible it would have viewed these health issues as merely a matter of course.

The 25th Amendment — codifying protocols for when a president dies or is unable to serve — wasn’t even ratified until 1967.

That was after Dwight D. Eisenhower had suffered a major heart attack, which left him recuperating in Denver for several weeks in 1955.

It was also after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a sharp reminder of presidential mortality. In life, Kennedy presented an image of healthful vigor, but “his ailments were legion,” says Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which studies the American presidency. But the public did not know.

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