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When a president gets sick

The White House is right to show an ‘abundance of caution’

October 2, 2020

5:11 AM

2 October 2020

5:11 AM

President William Henry Harrison died, famously, after giving the longest inauguration speech in history. On a bitterly cold winter day in 1841, Harrison spoke for an hour and 45 minutes — to prove what a man he was. Then he fell ill with pneumonia and died after just 32 days in office. He tried not to show weakness. He perished.

The lesson for Trump, who has just tested positive for coronavirus, is clear — don’t try to tough it out. Viral infections aren’t impressed by machismo. He should put his reelection efforts aside, as much as is humanely possible, rest, and recover.

The decision to helicopter him to Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda last night out of an ‘abundance of caution’, as press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called it, was therefore sensible — though he hasn’t yet officially abandoned any duties. British observers will recall very similar ‘caution’ language as Boris Johnson became critically ill.


Trump is a very high-energy old man — he doesn’t sleep, notoriously. He doesn’t take it easy. But his doctors will be advising him and his wife Melania, who has also tested positive, to do precisely that. The President should listen.

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If Trump needs an example, he should look to his friend Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who tried to carry on working through the early stages of the illness and ended up very nearly dying in an ICU ward. Boris is like Trump, a large man with an outsized libido. His COVID-19 infection could have gone either way. And he is 18 years younger than the American president.

Trump was, rather touchingly, so concerned about Boris that he tried to send in top American medical companies to treat the Prime Minister in his hour of need. Boris should repay the favor now by telling him to switch off for a few days, ignore the hubbub of the election, and concentrate entirely on getting through the infection. Maybe one of Trump’s advisers — not his counselor Hope Hicks, who tested positive just before Trump — should take away his cell phone so he can’t spend all day in bed tweeting. That would bring all sorts of benefits.

Obviously lots of nasty people on social media want Trump to suffer and die — and are tweeting unpleasant remarks to that effect. But most aren’t so twisted, thankfully, and don’t want to turn his misfortune into another skirmish in the culture war. As we saw with Boris Johnson, the public will wish and pray for their leader to make a speedy recovery. Whether that goodwill will translate into political capital ahead of the election is another question — perhaps best left for tomorrow.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.


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