Late on June 23, 1953, Winston Churchill had a stroke. As the great bulldog recovered, his advisers made the bold decision to keep his illness a secret. Officially, the prime minister was resting because of an arduous schedule. His doctors’ diagnosis of a ‘disturbance of the cerebral circulation which has resulted in attacks and giddiness’ was struck from the records.
In public, John F. Kennedy shone with youthful health and vigor. Behind closed doors, he was a mess. As Robert Dallek has written for the Atlantic, JFK suffered from ‘ulcers and colitis as well as Addison’s disease…terrific back trouble…urinary-tract infections and depression.’ In the two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dallek wrote:
‘Kennedy took his usual doses of anti-spasmodics to control his colitis, antibiotics for a flare-up of his urinary-tract problem and a bout of sinusitis, and increased amounts of hydrocortisone and testosterone, along with salt tablets, to control his Addison’s disease and boost his energy.’
The poor fellow was a walking pharmacy. Some think his back brace made it impossible for him to duck the second, fatal shot on November 22, 1963.
It is by no means absurd, then, to wonder whether politicians or those around them will lie about their health. But in 2020, politicians have been accused of manufacturing illness. Many Britons, some of them politicians, theorized that Boris Johnson was not seriously ill with coronavirus but instead trying to court public sympathy. (No evidence was presented.) Now, some Americans believe Donald Trump has made up his COVID-19 diagnosis. MSNBC anchor Joy Reid tweets:
‘Here’s how wrecked Trump’s credibility is at this point: I’ve got a cellphone full of texts from people who aren’t sure whether to believe Trump actually has covid. “He lies so much,” one friend just texted. “Is he just doing this to get out of the debates?” others are texting.’
Reid, as a cursory glance at her timeline will make obvious, is also not sure if President Trump has COVID-19. But to stay on the safe side, sh’’s putting that sentiment into the words of friends. NBC analyst Matthew Miller, meanwhile, posts:
‘The only thing that feels like a certainty this morning is that the White House will not be honest about the President’s medical condition over the coming days and weeks.’
Braver, Mr Miller, but not very brave.
In fairness, it is not inconceivable that President Trump would lie about an illness. We should never take the word of the leader of a superpower as absolute gospel. Trump’s supporters would be on especially thin grounds dismissing the idea as uniquely absurd, given how many of them spent the week indulging the idea that a crease in Joe Biden’s shirt at Tuesday’s debate was a secret wire.
Still, it is not likely, is it. The President, his wife, his senior counsel and the chair of the GOP all report having the virus. Are they, and their families, and their doctors, all in it together? This is turning into quite a conspiracy — and quite a silly one.
I mean, who benefits? If Trump experiences severe symptoms then it harms his chances, as well as his health, because it will encourage the perception that he did not take COVID-19 seriously enough. If he experiences mild symptoms then it might help him inasmuch as it makes him look strong and confirms, to some, that he never needed to be scared. Certainly, the people gloating as if he has somehow got his just desserts will look foolish if, like most people, he emerges feeling fine. How many people’s perceptions of coronavirus now hinge on one man’s experiences? Not many, I hope. Would a president take such a big for such a minor boost? It is possible, sure, but also improbable. The funniest people are the ones claiming that the President is ducking the debates, as if they are not, for better or worse, his favorite part of the campaign trail.
Liberals remain agitated about an unscheduled trip that Trump made to Walter Reed hospital last year. Trump’s visit, which was explained as being for ‘portions of his routine annual physical exam’ was peculiar. It would not surprise me if, in the grand tradition of Churchill and JFK, Trump has been less than forthcoming about his physical health.
No one wants their leaders to be cognitively or physically fragile — even if some, like FDR, have shown that in the latter case it can be done – and there is an obvious incentive to veil your vulnerabilities. In 2016, Republicans speculated that Hillary Clinton was hiding was ill-health — not without just cause after she was filmed collapsing as she climbed into a car. Hillary turned out to be suffering from pneumonia. This year Republicans have alleged, not without some degree of plausibility, that Democrats around Joe Biden are downplaying the scale of his decline.
Of course, I wish the President and First Lady my best for swift recoveries. It is sad that even a man’s announcement of illness becomes the subject of hot skepticism and debate, but that is the world we live in. You might as well complain about the air turning cold and the skies darkening earlier. The right treats everything that the left says and does with instinctive suspicion and the left does the same with the roles reserved. Both sides that their suspicion is eminently justified while that their opponents’ is preposterous bunk. Of course, both of them would look at the other and say, ‘But don’t you see! It’s their fault!’