“The Healthiest Individual Ever Elected To The Presidency”?

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A very public stumble and a bizarre appearance on Dr. Oz. It’s been quite a week for conspiracy theorists, the 24-hour news cycle, and puzzled bystanders alike. The growing health issues of this race are drawing attention.

The discussion around the health issues of the president is not new. In many ways, American society views the health and energy of the person in charge as a reflection of the health and vibrancy of the country as a whole.

How can we forget the boisterous proclamation by Trump’s doctor way back in December of last year that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”? Similar declarations of superhuman health have been made by self-proclaimed macho men the likes of Vladimir Putin and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Why, then, has health and the unsubstantiated theories about the candidates taken such a central role in this election cycle?

America has a history of electing individuals with serious concealed medical conditions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s paralysis comes to mind. Footage shows Roosevelt clutching the lectern for support when he gave public speeches (something that would never fly in this time of hyper scrutiny) in an effort to hide his disability. Roosevelt’s aids subsequently kept the president’s chest pains and headaches, symptoms of the heart attack that would eventually kill him while in office, under wraps.

John F. Kennedy, one of the presidents that we look back at as one of the most youthful and energetic, actually suffered from Addison’s disease, chronic back pain, and persistent digestive problems that saw him taking a variety of medications to keep him functioning.

Obviously the kind of secrecy that both FDR and JFK employed to keep their health concerns under wraps is no longer an option in an age of the hyper scrutinous 24-hour news cycle and a public that demands complete transparency. In many ways, transparency is a good thing: it’s the foundation for accountability. But are proclamations of health from doubtful sources really the answer?

People don’t seem to want to talk about the gendered focus of this election but it is a very real thing. Hillary Clinton is the first woman ever nominated as the presidential candidate of a major party. Historically, the presidency has been viewed through the lens of power and physical strength. The “Commander in Chief” tagline has remained crucial even when individuals who have served in the military become rare and maybe even irrelevant (for example, Obama appearing stronger than John McCain in 2008 despite the latter being a renown war hero). Even today, can we picture a woman in charge of the nuclear codes? Ordering a drone strike?

Of course the health of the president matters, but what does it mean to demand absolute transparency in an era of compromised privacy and information overload? When somebody on TV speculates about something, you can bet that a good chunk of the electorate take that speculation as fact, even after it has been repeatedly disproved. We need to be careful that we demand truthful and relevant information of our candidates and that we inspect that information with a critical eye. But all Donald Trump had to do was speculate that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States for a lot of people to permanently latch onto the idea. In our demand for honesty, truth, and transparency, it’s worth treading carefully.

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