< Presidential Fitness Test


Friday, January 27, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: Vice-President Dick Cheney has never been accused of being a fashionista, but careful watchers of the news have occasionally spotted the Veep looking even more haphazard than usual. There was the Auschwitz Holocaust Memorial Event where Cheney dressed as if he'd been out snow-blowing, and more recently, he's been wearing noticeably inappropriate footwear – first, mismatched shoes, including one moccasin, at a military medal ceremony, and then scuffed casual brown oxfords to match his dark gray suit for a visit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It could be second-term indifference, but more likely, many have speculated, it's the telltale sign of an older man with heart disease accommodating his health. And if the press is forced to read his footwear as if they were tea leaves, it's only because he and most executive branch officials have never been entirely forthcoming about their fitness. It's a cat-and-mouse game as old as the Presidency. Robert Gilbert is a Presidential historian and the author of The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House. Bob, welcome to the show.

ROBERT GILBERT: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: So in your pantheon of Presidents who were sicker than [CHUCKLES] the public was then led to believe, who would be members?

ROBERT GILBERT: Oh, my gosh. Many of them. John Adams, the second President, left the Capitol for about six months, trying to overcome what seemed to be an emotional breakdown. Now researchers believe it was hypothyroidism. James Madison was delirious for a period of time, about three weeks; wasn't able to function as President. Grover Cleveland was diagnosed as having cancer of the jaw. Then he said, "If Congress finds out, my relationship with Congress will be even worse than it is now," and so he boarded a yacht with five physicians, and the yacht traveled slowly up the Hudson River while the physicians removed his upper jaw. And two weeks later, doctors engaged in a second surgery and fitted him with an artificial rubber jaw so that he would be able to speak. And we didn't find this out until about 10 years after his death, when one of the doctors published an account of the surgery.

BOB GARFIELD: Not very observant reporters, [LAUGHS] it seems to me.

ROBERT GILBERT: Reporters did ask White House officials whether or not the rumors were true, that Cleveland had been operated on, and the White House simply told them that the President had had a tooth removed.

BOB GARFIELD: What's the history of the press either soft-pedaling or, through some sort of conspiracy of silence, actually suppressing bad news about Presidential health?

ROBERT GILBERT: I think the press in the Roosevelt years did cooperate in concealing the President's health, at least the fact that he had lost the use of his legs. Roosevelt told the press that he never wanted to be photographed being lifted out of his limousine. He told the press that he never wanted to be photographed seated in his wheelchair, and, by and large, the press respected his wishes. And also I think many reporters at the time were convinced that there's no reason why someone who doesn't have the use of his legs can't be an effective President.

BOB GARFIELD: There's one fabulous story in The History of Presidential Health and the disclosure [CHUCKLES] thereof. It concerned Lyndon Johnson, who underwent gall bladder surgery in the middle of his [CHUCKLES] Presidency. Tell me about that.

ROBERT GILBERT: It was in 1965. Recuperating at his Texas ranch, he was talking to the press one day and, needless to say, they were asking questions about the gall bladder surgery. And all of a sudden Johnson opened his jacket and lifted his shirt to show the scar, and many people thought that this was really vulgar and very uncouth. But in point of fact, there was a reason why Johnson did this. Johnson, when he was Senate Majority Leader, had had a massive heart attack - had almost died, as a matter of fact, and he lifted his shirt and showed the scar because he was trying to dispel rumors that he had had another heart attack.

BOB GARFIELD: In the early days of the republic, the press was very different than it is now. It was very partisan. Were reporters more or less vigilant in that environment than they are now under the, you know, largely objective press?

ROBERT GILBERT: Well, I don't think the modern press is particularly vigilant when it comes to the President's health. For example, when President Bush supposedly fainted a few years ago after eating a pretzel and choking on a pretzel, the press basically accepted that explanation. But there certainly had been intimations by some doctors that the President might, in point of fact, have certain health problems. One problem that I've heard is that he might have the same condition that his father had, atrial fibrillation, and might actually be wearing an electrical device to monitor his heart and shock his heart back into normal rhythm if it goes out of rhythm.

BOB GARFIELD: That might explain that strange box-shaped hump under the President's shirt during one of the debates that was the subject of some speculation a year and a half ago.


BOB GARFIELD: The public has shown sometimes that it is willing to put up with various White House white lies. Do you think the President's health is an issue that they've accepted the administration not to be forthcoming about?

ROBERT GILBERT: I think the public tends to see the President as sort of a heroic figure, not completely human – in other words, not being susceptible to the same kind of illnesses that the rest of us are susceptible to. And also, I think some portion of the public would see this as a privacy issue, that the President has a right to keep his medical records private.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Bob. Thanks very much.

ROBERT GILBERT: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

BOB GARFIELD: Robert Gilbert is a professor of political science at Northeastern University and author of Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House.