Obsessing Over Candidates’ Health is Kind of Creepy
Hillary Clinton. Photo: Gage Skidmore
The nation was shocked this week when Hillary Clinton, a woman in her late 60s who regularly takes blood thinners and allergy meds, got a little woozy at an event where it was hot and took the afternoon off. Later, her campaign released a statement that Clinton had been traveling with pneumonia for three days.
Now, really this story should be “Holy crap! She’s campaigning with pneumonia?! I once skipped work because I had a bit of Frito that was stuck in my teeth and bothering me.” Instead it turned into this bizarre round of weird health conspiracies being put out by the proud graduates of Google Medical School. Clinton has epilepsy. Clinton has Parkinson’s. Clinton has brain damage. Clinton has everything including Corrupted Blood, Greyscale and a bad case of loving you.
And we never stop to wonder why we act this creepy way with one job in the entire country.
For one, I find the ableism inherent in obsessing over candidates’ health rather disturbing. Having epilepsy should not disqualify Clinton from being president even if she had it. You know our Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, has epilepsy right? I’ve never heard the fact come up regarding his ability to oversee one of the most powerful institutions in the land, and he has that job for life if he wants it.
It’s equally insulting to do it to Donald Trump and mental illness. Trump is a sociopath. Trump has narcissistic personality disorder. Trump has Alzheimer’s and dementia. All of this despite the American Psychiatric Association asking its members to please stop doing this as it’s unethical and irresponsible. “Sociopath” is not actually a synonym for evil, y’all. You can hate Trump for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with a mind state he may or may not have and which he would have no control over if he did.
I realize the president is sort of America’s avatar, a figure that we define ourselves with as a nation. And traditionally, Americans are sort of okay treating people with disabilities as victims, but not so great as treating them as people of worth in their own right despite them making up one out of every five working people. We were ready for a black president, we may be ready for a woman president, but the constant demonization over Clinton and Trump’s unproven disabilities is pretty clear evidence that we’re not ready to be defined by a perceived weakness.
It’s only presidents and possible presidents we do this with, too. Greg Abbot absolutely trounced Wendy Davis in the 2023 race to be our governor, and yet no one ever asks if his being in a wheelchair will impede his ability to drive women’s rights back into the sea while in office. Even if you did bring up his desire to screw over other disabled Texans, it was generally seen as a dick move. Abbott in a wheelchair is seen as powerful. If Clinton or Trump were in one, they’d be seen as damaged.
Or take my own representative, Ted Poe. He was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year, and recently went back to work in Congress after getting treatments (you kill that dragon, Ted!). Poe is not in any danger of losing his seat in Texas’ second district over his health. The Cook Political Report rates him as completely safe with a partisan voting index of +16 (that’s a lot). Compare that to Senator John McCain running for president in 2023, when the New York Times was stoking the same fires as today by gleefully obsessing over the idea John McCain might not be as free of cancer as he claimed. Did this cost him the race? I don’t know, but I do know the idea he might leave the country in Governor Sarah Palin’s hands cost him 2 million votes.
This is comparatively a new thing. Sure, Grover Cleveland secretly had a cancerous tumor removed on a yacht because he didn’t want a country entering a depression to be even more worried, but that’s more exception than rule. The whole country knew that Franklin Roosevelt had suffered considerable physical impairment thanks to polio, but continued to elect him four times for a couple of reasons despite it. First, polio was super common in his time, with epidemics every summer. It wasn’t an invisible boogeyman, but a fact of life million interacted with. People knew what polio actually was. I’m betting most people don’t actually know what sociopathy is.
Second, the press respected Roosevelt’s desire to not be photographed and hounded while in his wheelchair. “No movies of me getting out of the machine, boys,” he famously said, and the reporters lowered their cameras.
Chester A. Arthur is a good example as well. Shortly after inheriting the presidency from the assassinated James Garfield, he was stricken with Bright’s disease. He basically governed from bed nearly his entire term, and while, yes, his health was a factor in whether he would be the party’s nominee in 1884, you can also hang his failure more strongly on the fact Arthur was a famously corrupt politician who actually began rooting out that corruption once in power to the annoyance of his party. Being sick, even chronically ill, does not automatically preclude someone from power and ability, something it would be nice if American employers understood better.
I believe that the obsession with presidents’ health comes from a fear of systemic breakdown. The idea of a president dying is not only tragic, it’s terrifying as far as the balance of power goes. Which is weird because presidents dying is very, very normal
Since the Founding, nine presidents have failed to finish their terms. Four caught a nasty case of Armed Asshole Syndrome, four died of natural causes, and one, Nixon, resigned. That’s one in five people who have held the office assuming Barack Obama makes it to January. Excluding the first time it happened, power was more or less transferred without too much fuss.
“But what if the president doesn’t die? What if the president is somehow incapable of performing her duties and won’t resign?” I’ve got good news and its name is the 25th Amendment. We totally have a procedure for this exact set of circumstances, and I imagine convincing Congress to play Impeaching the President 2 wouldn’t be too hard if they had half a reason.
This fixation on Clinton and Trump’s health is gross. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes, implies illness should be a good enough reason to not give someone a job, and frankly it makes our country look like it can’t handle itself when it comes to healthcare. More than that, it smacks of a puritanical search for a physical manifestation of corruption, and idea that is literally medieval. Insisting on presidential candidates’ medical records honestly does more harm than good.
by Jef Rouner