Candidates' Ailments a Public Concern
Sen. Barack Obama is "in excellent health" and is physically fit to be president, according to the physician for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The Obama campaign recently released a letter from his physician detailing Obama's overall health. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, had released 1,173 pages of his medical records a week earlier.
Obama's physician also noted that the senator's "build was lean and muscular with no excess body fat." His blood pressure was 90 over 60; pulse rate was 60 beats per minute; triglyceride level was 44; cholesterol was 173. To stop smoking, Obama is "using Nicorette gum with success."
McCain has "extraordinary energy," is cancer-free, in good cardiovascular health and has "no medical reason that would preclude [him] from fulfilling all the duties and obligations of president of the United States," according to his longtime physician. McCain's blood pressure was 134 over 84; cholesterol was 192. He takes a statin for his cholesterol; Claritin, Zyrtec or Flonase for seasonal allergies and Ambien to help him sleep during travel.
Nicorette? Flonase? Ambien? Such seemingly inconsequential information about a presidential candidate's health used to be a private matter between the candidate and the candidate's doctor. But when former presidential candidate Sen. Paul Tsongas died on Jan. 18, 1997 — two days before President Bill Clinton's second inauguration — the physical fitness of the president has been a very public concern.
During his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, when he won seven primaries and caucuses, Tsongas, who had battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for nine years, insisted he was cancer-free. When the disease recurred soon after the '92 election, Tsongas did not immediately disclose the information. He later admitted the error and urged Clinton to form a commission to examine the issue of how much personal health data should be disclosed by presidential candidates.
A look through the Newseum's archives shows that the hidden illnesses of candidates and presidents did not begin with Tsongas and often endangered the health of the country.
• The nation was in the middle of a financial crisis in 1893 when newly elected president Grover Cleveland secretly had surgery aboard a private yacht to remove a cancerous lesion from his left jaw. When the press reported the surgery days later, the White House denied it, claiming the president had a bad tooth extracted.
• When President Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke during his second term in 1919, only the first lady, his physician, private secretary and the secretary of state were aware of his condition. The vice president and most of Wilson's cabinet were kept in the dark. The official word to the inquiring press was that the bedridden president had suffered a nervous breakdown.
• In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt — who had polio — died suddenly. What Americans did not know was he had been diagnosed with advanced congestive heart failure in 1944. Although his polio was not a secret during his 12 years in office, many in the press honored an unwritten rule not to publish photos of him wearing braces or riding in a wheelchair.
• During his 1960 presidential bid, John F. Kennedy denied he had Addison's disease, a debilitating illness of the adrenal glands that required cortisone injections. Kennedy, who enjoyed friendly relationships with the media, had battled several chronic illnesses throughout his life.
As the 2008 general campaign kicks into full force, every skin rash, allergy or minor injury the candidates encounter could become an issue.