The health concerns surrounding Hillary Clinton now that she and Donald Trump are embarking upon the final phase of their run for the US Presidency – the coughing fits, the fainting at this weekend’s 9/11 anniversary ceremony, and the eventual diagnosis of pneumonia – are a reminder of the stamina required to hold the highest office in the land; and she hasn’t even made it to the White House yet. Ronald Reagan was 69 when elected in 1980, and if Mrs Clinton is elected in November she will have reached the same age – an age at which the majority would be enjoying retirement rather than beginning one of the most demanding jobs on the planet. She has so far brushed off any rumours of serious illness, though if the race itself proves to be a strain, how would she cope once behind the desk of the Oval Office (as opposed being under it, which was the preferred position of her husband’s female aides)? Aside from Kennedy, McKinley, Garfield and Lincoln – whose demises came as a consequence of assassin’s bullets – four other US Presidents have died in office.
First up was William Henry Harrison in 1841. An American Whig and ex-Major General, Harrison holds several notable records: He was the last US President born a British subject (1773), the first serving President to have his photograph taken, the oldest man elected to the job until Reagan (aged 68), and the first to die in office; his tenure at the White House also remains the shortest on record, just 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes; he died from pneumonia after catching a cold three weeks on from his inauguration. Less than a decade later, President Zachary Taylor died of suspected cholera, believed to have been infected by the open sewers of Washington; another Whig and former Major General, Taylor was just seventeen months into office when he passed away.
Warren G Harding had served barely two-and-a-half years as President when he died of either a heart attack or a stroke in 1923 (the cause remains debatable). Not only did none of these three men serve a full term of office; their deaths were all surrounded by speculation and rumour, proving that the JFK conspiracy industry had precedents. Zachary Taylor’s remains were even exhumed in 1991 to finally resolve the mystery of his death.
Perhaps the most famous non-assassinated President to die in office was Franklin D Roosevelt, who passed away on the eve of the Second World War’s ending in April 1945. Stricken by polio at a relatively late age (39), the then-practicing lawyer was paralysed by the disease from the waist down and could no longer walk or stand without assistance. Determined not to be broken by the paralysis, Roosevelt worked hard at walking again, supported by a cane and wearing iron braces on his legs; he was frequently wheelchair-bound behind closed doors, though he was careful never to be seen so physically incapacitated in public. Roosevelt tried various alternative therapies to mask the extremities of his disability and found the warm springs in Georgia conducive to improving his condition.
Roosevelt already had a career in public office before his debilitating illness in 1921 and he re-entered politics by successfully running for the Governorship of New York in 1928; his physical difficulties were no secret, though the extent of them was. Whilst sometimes supported by crutches or one of his aides when speaking in public, he could stand alone on a podium by gripping a strong lectern; the need to keep hold of it led to his trademark animated head gestures when making a speech. After being elected US President for the first of four record-breaking occasions in 1932, Roosevelt was careful to minimise the damage that his frailty could have on public opinion, avoiding the media when arriving at events in order that his difficulties in getting in and out of vehicles wouldn’t be publicised. Any photographers that attempted to capture the President at his most vulnerable allegedly had their photos censured by the Secret Service.
The heavy strain of the War years took a further toll on FDR’s health; running for his historic fourth term in 1944, it was evident to those around him that he was not a well man, though it’s possible he may have wanted to see WWII through to its conclusion. He was eventually elected, but the three months he served before his death were characterised by the need to broker peace in anticipation of victory; he attended the famous Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin in February 1945, returning home a month later. It was then that his increasing ill-health could be hidden no longer, especially when he was forced to address Congress sitting down. A few weeks later he was dead at the age of 63 – five years younger than Hillary Clinton is now.
That Roosevelt became the most dominant American politician of his generation and was the White House resident for twelve years is testament to his tremendous determination to overcome a crippling illness that would have broken many men. It also shows how badly some crave high office in the face of potentially impossible obstacles. The manner in which the media, both professional and social, has become so flustered over Hillary Clinton’s health makes one wonder how far FDR would have been able to hide his considerably more serious ailments from the prying eyes permanently peering into the modern goldfish bowl. Even John F Kennedy managed to keep his own chronic back pain from all but his closest friends, family and advisers, the severity of it (and the amount of drugs required to numb it) not becoming public knowledge until years after his death.
The pressures public figures – particularly politicians – are placed under in the 24-hour 365-days-a-year spotlight when compared to their distant predecessors are undoubtedly something ‘private’ figures are relieved to be spared. However, entering public life is largely down to individual choice, unless circumstances push the anonymous onto the front pages; and today the general public as well as the politicians choose to do so, whether running for office and having the miniature of one’s entire life forensically scrutinised or posting a gallery of selfies and being exposed to the wrath of trolls. And nobody yet knows if Hillary Clinton’s decision to try to get her hands on the Presidency will ultimately do her more damage than it will her country.
© The Editor