What Presidents Hide Most Is the State of Their Health

President Donald Trump has such a big credibility problem that when he said he had tested positive for COVID-19 last Friday, my reaction, and that of many people, was that he was lying. Subsequently, we learned through contradictory reports from his doctors that perhaps he wasn’t lying this time, that, in fact, he was sick. Now, given his miraculous recovery, the only thing that is clear is that neither his fellow citizens nor the rest of the world knows the whole story.

Unfortunately, the president has earned a reputation as a liar, and when we saw him entering and leaving the hospital, what was most certain was that we were never going to know what really happened. Or whether he just wanted to show that he was right from the start, when, contrary to the science, he claimed COVID-19 was no worse than the flu.

However, he is not the only president who has lied about their illness. And while this country has been a little more transparent than others, even here, the truth takes time to emerge. Suffice it to say that it is still not known, and will perhaps never be known, why all of a sudden in June 2019 Trump was at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

It is clear that what politicians most want to keep hidden, here and everywhere, is the state of their health. They think that this, and often their weight, are private matters which are only their concern. As is the case with Trump, they are afraid that admitting to having a physical illness makes them appear weak politically.

Trump appears to be following the example of Woodrow Wilson, whose presidency was also affected by a pandemic, the influenza pandemic which, in 1918-19, killed 675 million people in the United States. In both cases, the presidents fell ill, and they both had to decide how much to tell the public.

When he first showed symptoms, Wilson was in Paris at talks to end World War I. Historians say he didn’t want to take his countrymen’s minds off their effort to end the conflict. Shortly afterward, Wilson suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, but he never told the truth about it, and it is said by many that his wife ran the government.

The history of the U.S. is replete with cases in which presidents have lied about their medical conditions. Thomas Jefferson suffered frequently and inexplicably from diarrhea, but this never became known. William Henry Harrison got pneumonia due to the cold weather at his inauguration ceremony; nothing was said, and he died a month after taking office. Grover Cleveland underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his throat, and because he was obese and feared for his life, he had it done in secret onboard a private yacht.

More recently in the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt admitted that he had contracted polio, but he never told citizens that he had not recovered the use of his legs. In fact, photographers were forbidden to take photos of him getting into or out of a car. He also suffered from high blood pressure and bronchitis. But nothing was said about it and he was reelected. He took office in January, only to die three months later, on April 12, 1945.

But perhaps no other occupant of the White House was better at hiding his illness than John F. Kennedy. Elected when he was 43, he became almost legendary for his youth and the physical vigor he demonstrated. However, his biographers say that he suffered from serious problems with his back and legs. He took eight different medications every day, including powerful painkillers, sleeping pills, hormones and other stimulants.

People were able to watch the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan on television. But even so, the most widely circulated news item at the time concerned the convalescing president kidding around with doctors and nurses. The seriousness of his injuries, and how close he came to dying were almost never mentioned.

Four of this country’s presidents died of natural causes while they were in office; most of the rest suffered and concealed every type of vice and illness. If the past serves as a guide, it is clear that the truth about Trump’s health, a month before the election, will remain a secret. If other reputedly honest Republicans and Democrats have lied, what can we hope for from Trump, the most dishonest of them all?

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