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An Encyclopedia of Presidential Health Conspiracies and Cover-Ups

After Clinton’s pneumonia disclosure, a look at several presidents who were famously secretive about their health problems

Encyclopedia, Presidential, Health, Conspiracies, Cover-Ups

Hillary Clinton leaving a 9/11 ceremony Sunday, after overheating.

Andrew Harnik/AP

As has been endlessly discussed over the past few days, Hillary Clinton left early from a ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of 9/11 Sunday, appearing visibly woozy and requiring her bodyguard’s assistance to stay upright.

Clinton’s campaign later disclosed that the Democratic nominee had been diagnosed with pneumonia and ordered to rest on Friday; the campaign came under fire for keeping that diagnosis private for 48 hours. Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon on Monday admitted fault, telling MSNBC, “I think that in retrospect we could have handled it better in terms of providing more information more quickly.” The campaign has said it will release more information on Clinton’s health this week.

Meanwhile, voters know significantly less about Trump’s health. The GOP nominee has not released a credible doctor’s letter, nor any medical information. The single document he’s presented is from a gastroenterologist whose typo-riddled letter includes the dubious phrase, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” This, despite the fact that, at 70, Trump would be the oldest candidate ever elected. (When John McCain, who was just a year older than Trump is now, ran in 2008, he released more than 1,200 pages of medical records to ease voters’ minds about his health.) In a move that is not likely to quell any concerns, Trump is expected to discuss his health in a Thursday appearance on The Dr. Oz Show.

Whether Clinton and Trump like it or not, it’s become routine for individuals who are running for president to release medical information prior to Election Day. But presidents have, in the past, been highly secretive about their health problems. Here are several who kept their health issues under wraps – something both Clinton and Trump perhaps wish they could get away with today.

Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland was so insistent on keeping it under wraps that he had a cancerous growth on the roof of his mouth as he was sworn in for his second term that he secretly had the tumor excised aboard a friend’s yacht under the auspices of a four-day fishing trip. A team of six surgeons “used ether as the anesthesia and they removed the tumor along with about five teeth and a large part of the president’s upper left jawbone,” Matthew Algeo, the author of The President Is a Sick Man, told NPR in 2011. Cleveland’s distinctive mustache helped provided such convincing cover that the press didn’t learn of the operation until two months later. Even then, Cleveland publicly denied the report. It took another 23 years for the story to be publicly accepted.

Woodrow Wilson
In the summer of 1918, during the waning months of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson secretly underwent surgery to remove polyps from his nose – a procedure that was only disclosed when, in 2007, his doctor’s personal papers were made public. “It has been a big undertaking,” White House physician Cary Grayson wrote in a letter to his wife. “No one knows anything about it except First Lady] Miss E[dith Wilson]., Miss Harkins, Hoover – It is one secret that has been kept quiet, so far, and I think it is safe all right now.” A year later, after the war had ended, Wilson, fresh off a 22-day, 8,000-mile marathon promotional tour for the proposed League of Nations, suffered a massive stroke that left him permanently paralyzed on one side. Again, his wife Edith managed to keep his health scare private from the press, who only learned of the stroke several months later.

Warren G. Harding
Wilson’s successor, Warren G. Harding, died in office of a suspected heart attack. His cause of death became the subject of rampant rumors when his wife, Florence, refused to allow an autopsy. In the absence of an official report, the public assailed Harding’s doctors. “We were belabored and attacked by newspapers antagonistic to Harding, and by cranks, quacks, antivivisectionists, nature healers, the Dr. Albert Abrams electronic-diagnosis group, and many others. We were accused of starving the President to death, of feeding him to death, of assisting in slowly poisoning him, and of plying him to death with pills and purgatives. We were accused of being abysmally ignorant, stupid and incompetent, and even of malpractice,” Harding’s physician, Ray Lyman Wilbur, later said.

Harry Truman
In 1952, Harry Truman – the picture of health compared to his predecessor, FDR, who passed away shortly after he was elected to his fourth term – was secretly hospitalized for a week with strep throat, the flu and a serious pulmonary infection. The press was kept in the dark; Truman’s press secretary, Joseph Short, admitted only to a “mild” temperature and viral infection, rebuffing further questions from White House reporters. His full medical report was not revealed until 2010.

Dwight Eisenhower
When Dwight Eisenhower suffered a massive heart attack in 1955, early reports attributed his absence to “a digestive upset during the night.”

John F. Kennedy
Eisenhower’s successor, JFK, was perhaps the most secretive of all. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease – though his doctors, during the campaign, refuted reports of his affliction, saying he did not have Addison’s disease caused by tuberculosis. In reality, Kennedy had been diagnosed with the condition, characterized by the kidney’s inability to produce hormones, in the 1940s. He took a cocktail of drugs daily to control the disease, and reportedly collapsed twice in office as result of its effects.

Lyndon Johnson
Among the long list of presidents eager to hide their weaknesses from the world, Lyndon Johnson was an outlier. Johnson released a lengthy statement on the occasion of his gallbladder surgery in 1965. It included the full story of his doctor’s discovery, and was discussed with his vice president, cabinet, staff, Congress and military leaders. “The public will, of course, be kept fully and currently advised of my progress,” Johnson said at the time.

Ronald Reagan
And then, of course, there’s Ronald Reagan, whose Alzheimer’s diagnosis was revealed in 1994, five years after he left office. The question of whether he was suffering symptoms while in office has been hotly debated ever since.

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