The White House is consistent. It has been frequently less than truthful in the past, so it is no surprise that information from President Donald Trump’s doctors and spokespeople has been a muddled stew of confusing and contradictory updates about his health. Trump’s doctors painted a rosy picture of the president’s health Saturday, only to have White House chief of Staff Mark Meadows give a more downbeat analysis later. Then, Sunday, Trump’s lead doctor admitted he was less than forthcoming the day before. The contradictions continued Monday as Trump returned to the White House and said people should not be afraid of the coronavirus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. At the same time, Trump’s doctor said the president is “not out of the woods yet.”
Contributing to the confusion has been Trump’s drug regimen, which appears to include, almost simultaneously, drugs given to treat patients in the early stages of COVID-19 and steroids offered later to combat the ravages the disease presents to a patient’s immune system. On top of that, Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician, admitted Sunday that he had declined to share the information that Trump required oxygen Friday for fear of causing alarm. “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, over his course of illness, has had,” Conley said. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.” Conley’s mea culpa was somewhat mystifying, but Conley, like most who have to report on Trump, has to please an audience of one. In addition, it is possible that Trump — who is convinced he knows everything — is directing his own medical care, such as why and when he receives oxygen and what drugs he takes.
The Trump White House is notoriously allergic to truth-telling, but the issue of presidential health has often been the subject of dissimulation in the past. The difference today, of course, is that with the advent of 24-hour cable and social media, the absence of information — or the presence of obvious misinformation — leads to the wildest speculation that then instantly becomes the “truth” for many.
Medical bulletins painted a rosy picture of James Garfield’s condition, even as the president was in agony from an assassin’s bullet. “The president has passed a comfortable day and this evening appears better than for some days past,” Garfield’s doctors wrote on September 2, 1881, two months after Garfield had been shot twice by Charles Guiteau. Garfield died on September 19, probably from sepsis, a massive infection caused by doctors probing Garfield’s wounds with unwashed hands. Guiteau may have been right when he said, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”
Twelve years later, rumors spread that President Grover Cleveland was suffering from oral cancer, yet on July 6, 1893, the president’s personal physician said Cleveland was “suffering from rheumatism” and “from the teeth.” In truth, the president had a lesion on the roof of his mouth, but Cleveland did not want the public to know, especially during a crash of the stock market. The tumor was removed successfully aboard a yacht moored off Cape Cod, and the story became public only twenty-five years later.
Woodrow Wilson suffered several bouts of ill-health while attending the Versailles Peace Conference after the end of World War I, including a case of influenza (though probably not, according to a Wilson biographer, the notorious “Spanish” flu, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide from 1918-1920; other historians disagree). In September and October 1919 Wilson suffered a series of strokes while campaigning for Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and its League of Nations, an international organization that Wilson hoped would preserve world peace. The public never knew that the left side of the president’s body was paralyzed. Doctors said the incapacitated Wilson suffered only from “nervous exhaustion.” Wilson spent the rest of his term hidden in the White House and conducting virtually no business while his wife effectively ran the government as de-facto president.
The public also never knew how sick Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the end of World War II. Already in declining health by the time he ran for a fourth term in November 1944, Roosevelt was weakened by congestive heart failure and extraordinarily high blood pressure when he traveled to Yalta in the Soviet Union in February 1945 to meet Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The outcome of the Yalta conference set the stage for the postwar world. Averell Harriman, an envoy for Roosevelt during the war years, later said, “At Yalta, I believe, [Roosevelt] didn’t have the strength to be quite as stubborn as he liked to be.”
Roosevelt’s deterioration in 1944-1945 was not his first health problem. He had been stricken with polio as an adult in 1921, but the public knew little of his condition. The press was discouraged from photographing Roosevelt being helped out of cars or in his wheelchair. Roosevelt disliked drawing attention to his paralysis, probably from a mixture of vanity and fear that images of him in a wheelchair might demonstrate a weakness suggesting he was not up to the task of combatting the Great Depression. But, vanity is one thing; concealing medical conditions that might impair a president’s job performance is quite another.
Hiding the health of an American president is more difficult today than in the past. The public demands full disclosure, and doctors routinely offer statements after presidents undergo routine medical procedures and annual physicals. Those statements are not always fully transparent, because, after all, a doctor’s loyalty is to his or her patient — in this case a president — and not the public.
Perhaps the president who was most transparent in discussing his medical condition was Jimmy Carter, who in late 1978 insisted his aides forthrightly announce that the president was canceling appointments for a day because of a “an aggravated hemorrhoid problem.” Carter deserves compliments for being forthcoming, but hemorrhoids are just an embarrassment, not a serious medical problem. President Trump suffering from COVID-19 is a national security issue, and the public has a right to and a need for — especially with the election just a month away — full disclosure of his medical condition. That, so far, has been wanting.
Posted October 6, 2020