Deception, Disclosure and the Politics of Health
Over the past century, the health of our presidents has become
a political as well as a medical issue. Beginning with Chester Alan
Arthur's administration in 1881, the perceived political consequences
of disclosing a president's medical problems have sometimes conflicted
with the public's concern for accountability and openness. Presidents
Arthur and Kennedy chose to keep their incurable diseases secret.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on the other hand, advocated full
disclosure. President Lyndon B. Johnson chose at first not to disclose
information about his gall bladder problem He later changed his
mind, even showing reporters the scar left from his surgery.
The cases of Presidents Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin
D. Roosevelt are perhaps the most famous examples of the nondisclosure
of health problems.
Chester Alan Arthur
1881 - 1885
Neither the American people nor Chester Alan Arthur knew that he
was a sick man when he became the nation's 21st president. In 1882,
various people close to the President noticed that he was becoming
increasingly depressed, irritable and lethargic. A cousin described
Arthur as "sick in body and soul." Sometime during that year, the
President was diagnosed as suffering from Bright's disease. Few
of Arthur's friends ever knew. The American people did not discover
Arthur's secret until 1911.
Bright's disease was at the time an incurable kidney disorder discovered
by London physician Richard Bright in 1811. Arthur's staff kept
the news secret. When the New York Herald reported that the President
had Bright's disease, it was denied by the administration as "pure
fiction." The American public never knew that the President was
so ill that he nearly died while on a trip to Florida in 1883. Knowing
that he would never survive a second term in office, Arthur did
little to see the Republican nomination in 1884. He died in 1886.
Warren Gamaliel Harding
1921 - 1923
When they elected Warren Harding the 19th President of the United
States, the American people did not realize that they were replacing
one sick Chief Executive with another. Harding undoubtedly looked
healthier than his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who had suffered
a debilitating stroke. Yet Harding was not a well man: he was suffering
from high blood pressure and heart disease. Harding may not have
been aware of how sick he was. Harding's physician, Dr. Charles
Sawyer, misdiagnosed his case, despite symptoms of shortness of
breath and blue lips.
In 1923, President Harding decided to take a trip to Alaska. Although
the trip was clearly too much for Harding's declining stamina, Dr.
Sawyer permitted the President to play golf, greet crowds, attend
picnics and receptions, and walk in parades. An observer who saw
Harding in Vancouver remarked that "The President is... an entirely
exhausted man." Yet Dr. Sawyer allowed Harding to deliver an outdoor
speech on a hot day in Seattle. The President, slurring his words,
barely made it through the speech. That evening, Harding became
ill. His remaining speeches were canceled and his train was ordered
to run straight through to San Francisco.
When questioned by reporters about the President's condition, Dr.
Sawyer replied that he was suffering from food poisoning. Yet when
other doctors examined Harding in San Francisco, they found his
heart greatly enlarged. They called in Dr. Ray Lyman Wilber, an
eminent cardiologist, who found that Harding was suffering from
heart disease. At no time were the American people aware of the
seriousness of the President's condition. News bulletins issued
by Dr. Sawyer stated that Harding's illness was caused by indigestion.
When Harding died on 2 August, Dr. Sawyer claimed that he died of
a stroke. The other physicians did not agree, but they chose to
keep their views to themselves rather than contradict Dr. Sawyer.
Dwight David Eisenhower
1953 - 1961
Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, endured
three major medical crises during his two terms in office. He suffered
a heart attack in September 1955, underwent surgery for Crohn's
disease in June 1956, and suffered a mild stroke in November 1957.
Eisenhower suffered a heart attack on 24 September 1955 while vacationing
in Denver, Colorado. The President instructed his press secretary,
James Hagerty, to keep the public informed of his condition. "Tell
them everything" he told Hagerty. While the public received detailed
reports on the President's condition, they did not know that Eisenhower's
personal physician, Dr. Howard Snyder, delayed a public announcement
of the heart attack as long as he could. He instructed the President's
private secretary to tell anyone who asked that Eisenhower was suffering
from a "digestive upset."
The medical team in charge of Eisenhower's case was comprised of
four doctors, including the famous cardiologist, Dr. Paul Dudley
White. While the team presented a unified front in public, members
disagreed privately about Eisenhower's long term prognosis and his
running for a second term. Dr. White, the team leader, counseled
the President not to run. Unable to convince Eisenhower, White reversed
himself in public and declared at the 14 February press conference
that the President "should be able to carry on an active life for
another five to ten years." If Dr. White had said what he really
thought, Eisenhower may not have run or been re-elected.
A Gaunt President Eisenhower Leaves Walter
Reed Hospital, 30 June 1956
On 10 May 1956, six months before the presidential
election, the President was diagnosed with Crohn's disease,
or ileitis, a disorder that may cause an obstruction in the
intestines. Dr. Snyder chose not to disclose this information
to the public. It did not remain a secret for long. On 8 June
the President suffered a sever attack of ileitis, which required
Eisenhower recovered from his ileitis surgery and won a second
term as president. On 25 November 1957 he suffered a mild stroke
while working in the Oval Office. He recovered from the stroke with
only a slight speech impediment. The following year, Eisenhower
gave his Vice President, Richard Nixon, a letter that gave the Vice
President authority to assume the powers of the presidency in case
he became incapacitated. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson made similar
President Eisenhower's Physicians
and Press Secretaries Hold a Press Conference About Whether
He Should Run for a Second Term
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
1961 - 1963
President John F. Kennedy
In the wake of President Eisenhower's medical
problems, the health of the presidential candidates in the
1960 election became an important issue. John F. Kennedy was
acutely aware of this. While he projected youth, vigor, and
fitness, he was hiding the fact that he had a life-threatening
disease. If his health problems had been made public, Kennedy
probably would not have been elected president.
In 1947, Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's disease, an incurable
disorder of the adrenal glands. Despite Kennedy's health problems,
his campaign insinuated that his rival for the nomination, Lyndon
Johnson, was not healthy enough for the presidency because of his
1955 heart attack. In response, the Johnson campaign mentioned rumors
of Kennedy's Addison's disease. Kennedy's people, including his
personal physician Dr. Janet Travell, denied the charge vigorously:
"John F. Kennedy has not, nor has he ever, had...Addison's disease."
A Sickly Looking John F. Kennedy
Five Months After the Onset of Addison's Disease
President Kennedy Meets the Press
Kennedy was elected 35th President of the
United States in 1960. The secret of his Addison's disease
was maintained throughout his short term in office. This photograph
shows the swelling effects of cortisone, which Kennedy had
been taking for Addison's disease since 1947.
While the American people knew that Kennedy had a bad back, they
were not aware of the controversial treatment he was receiving for
his back pain. Dr. Travell, who had been treating Kennedy since
1955, was giving him injections of anesthetics, notably procaine.
The president became addicted to the painkillers. At the advice
of other physicians Dr. Travell was replaced as the President's
Lydon Baines Johnson
1963 - 1969
Over the Labor day weekend of 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson
suffered a gall bladder attack. Surgery was recommended for the
36th President of the United States. Always secretive about his
health, Johnson did not want to inform the public about the operation.
President Johnson is Prepared
to Undergo Gall Bladder Surgery at the Bethesda Naval Hospital
After consulting with former President Eisenhower, Johnson decided
on a policy of full disclosure regarding his condition and the surgery.
The two-hour operation involved the removal of the President's gall
bladder and a gallstone, as well as a stone from his ureter.
Before his surgery, Johnson informed Vice President Hubert Humphrey
in great detail about what should be done in case he should be incapable
of carrying out his presidential duties after the operation.
The President showed the world his scar to illustrate just where
it was that the surgeons "messed around" in his abdomen. A friend
of the President said at the time, "I don't know anyone else who
would open up and show his gall bladder scar."
Convalescing From His Gall
Bladder Operation, President Johnson Meets with Vice President
Hubert H. Humphrey
President Johnson was in the hospital again in November 1966 to
have a nonmalignant growth removed from his throat and for the repair
of a small hernia. Again, the administration was open about the