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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.

IKE photo #1A 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 surgery.

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 agreements.

IKE photo #2President Eisenhower's Physicians and Press Secretaries
Hold a Press Conference About Whether
He Should Run for a Second Term




John Fitzgerald Kennedy
1961 - 1963

JFK photo #1President 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.”

JFK photo #2A Sickly Looking John F. Kennedy Five Months
After the Onset of Addison's Disease

JFK photo #3President 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 personal physician.




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.

LBJ Photo #1President 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.

LBJ Photo #2Press Secretary Bill Moyers' News Conference
on the President's Gall Bladder Surgery

President Johnson wanted the public to know that he was recovering and in control. The day after his operation, he signed a major anti-poverty bill in his hospital room.

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.”

LBJ Photo #3Convalescing 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 President's condition.

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Overview:
When the President
is the Patient

Early Presidents and
Their Illnesses

The President Has
Been Shot

Deception, Disclosure
and the Politics
of Health

Recent Presidents:
The Picture of Health

Grover Cleveland:
The Secret Operation

Woodrow Wilson:
The Disabled Presidency

Franklin D. Roosevelt:
The Dying President

Is There a Doctor in
the (White) House?:
The Medical Care of
Our Presidents

Is This Job For You?

About The College
of Physicians of Philadelphia