Two weeks before the 1944 election, an already ailing President Franklin D. Roosevelt rode 50 miles in an open car through New York City in a driving rain, hoping to convince voters that he was healthy enough for a fourth term. He succeeded in winning re-election, only to die five months later.
Compare that to midsummer 1988, when, with polls showing Democrat Michael Dukakis leading the presidential race, President Ronald Reagan alluded to rumors that the Massachusetts governor had been treated for depression, declaring, “I’m not going to pick on an invalid.” Though Dukakis was healthy, his poll numbers began to decline, and he ultimately lost to Vice President George Bush.
The latter incident shows the potentially damaging political impact of even unfounded rumors about candidates’ health in a modern presidential campaign. Besides, the day is long past when a candidate — or a White House — can conceal health issues like Roosevelt did in 1944 and President Woodrow Wilson did after a crippling stroke in 1919.
Hillary Clinton’s stumble and near collapse Sunday from pneumonia came after rivals had sought to make political mischief by raising the question of her health with unproven innuendo. In that climate, what appears to be confirming evidence in the form of an oft-repeated video of the event and her campaign’s failure to disclose for two days that she had pneumonia could have a very serious effect on this closely contested, very uncertain race.
Though she has been more open about her health than rival Donald Trump, her weekend episode puts a special burden on her to disprove Trump’s frequent accusations that she lacks “the mental and physical stamina” to perform the presidency.
There are two mitigating factors. Though Trump’s campaign manager immediately questioned Clinton’s “transparency,” the Republican nominee is a year older than Clinton and has revealed even less about his health. But on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” Monday morning, he said he recently had a full physical, pledging, “When the numbers come in, I’ll be releasing very, very specific numbers.”
The second is that even Trump acknowledged the physical demands on presidential candidates. Besides, a bout of pneumonia doesn’t necessarily confirm his suggestions she is “a weak person,” who is “not strong enough to be president.” But given her history of blood clots, Clinton needs to refute that by her performance in the coming weeks — especially in the televised debates — and by releasing the complete medical records nominees have traditionally disclosed.
History contains a warning for her. Though it’s not unusual for presidential candidates, or even presidents, to get sick, some incidents became symbolic representations of political problems.
In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole fell off a campaign platform in Chico, Calif. Though he soon started joking about it, the incident symbolized the fact that, at 73, he would have been the oldest person elected president.
In the fall of 1979, amid sagging approval ratings, President Jimmy Carter collapsed in a 10-kilometer road race near the Camp David retreat while trying to keep up with more seasoned runners. It became a symbol for his declining political standing.
And as President George H.W. Bush faced a Republican primary challenge from conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan in 1992, he collapsed and threw up at a state dinner in Japan. It came nine months after an earlier collapse while jogging because of what was diagnosed as a thyroid problem, raising questions about the 67-year-old president’s health.
Dole, Carter and Bush all lost. If Clinton subsequently loses, future presidential campaign historians may cite this weekend as a precursor of her political demise.
History also shows ways to respond.
In 1984, his age (73) became an issue for President Ronald Reagan’s re-election after he gave a meandering closing debate statement that prompted a front page story in The Wall Street Journal. But he escaped political damage with a strong showing in the second debate and a typical Reagan quip that he wouldn’t exploit rival Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.”
But Reagan had more credibility than Clinton. Still, unless she shows more physical problems than have been indicated so far, Clinton may ultimately suffer more from her unfortunate weekend condemnation of half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” though she subsequently moderated it.
Besides, it’s hard to say what voters weighing two unpopular nominees will decide when they measure her weekend missteps against Trump’s frequent denigration of ethnic groups, his questionable statements about some issues, his propensity to misrepresent his own past and what even many Republicans decry as a lack of presidential temperament.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: [email protected].