By Barbara A. Perry, co-editor of 42: Inside the Presidency of Bill Clinton
In the fall of 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower, once a four-pack-a-day smoker, had a brush with the Grim Reaper. While vacationing at his mother-in-law’s Denver home, Ike suffered a serious heart attack that landed him in an oxygen tent at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. For seven weeks he was confined to the facility, treated by a team of physicians, in consultation with famed Harvard-trained cardiologist Paul Dudley White, who flew in from Boston. Unlike his former commander-in-chief Franklin Roosevelt, at death’s door during the 1944 reelection campaign, Eisenhower insisted that the public know about his condition. “Tell the truth, the whole truth; don’t try to conceal anything,” the president instructed Press Secretary James Hagerty, who arrived on the scene from Washington the night after his boss was stricken. Following some confusion and misleading reports over the president’s condition in the initial hours of the crisis, Hagerty and Dr. White held informative news conferences to update the nation on the chief executive’s treatment and prognosis.
“Tell the truth, the whole truth; don’t try to conceal anything,” the president instructed Press Secretary James Hagerty, who arrived on the scene from Washington the night after his boss was stricken.
When he was well enough, the staff wheeled the wan president onto a sun deck for a photo op, where he sported jaunty red pajamas, a gift from the press corps, with “Much Better Thanks” embroidered on the front. Newsreel commentators remarked that Ike flashed his famous smile, but no contemporary POTUS or candidate for the office would want to be photographed as Eisenhower was—in a wheelchair, with a blanket shrouding his legs, looking every bit his sixty-five years of age.
Ike, who had served as the supreme allied commander in World War II, worried how his illness and distance from Washington might prevent him from acting with dispatch and acuity in a crisis. He summoned Attorney General Herbert Brownell to the Denver hospital room and expressed his concern. A quarter century ago, UVA’s Miller Center convened a distinguished panel of doctors, lawyers, public officials, and journalists to discuss presidential disability. For their report, Brownell recalled his 1955 conversation with the bed-ridden president. At Ike’s request, the attorney general had drafted what would become twelve years later the 25th Amendment, creating a succession process in the event of presidential indisposition or incapacitation.
Just nine months after his coronary, President Eisenhower was rushed by ambulance from the White House to Walter Reed Hospital, to undergo emergency abdominal surgery for ileitis (Crohn’s disease). Back before the cameras went Hagerty and the president’s doctors again to reassure the public about his condition. Despite precarious health, Ike was reelected in 1956. His approval ratings had hovered in the 70 percent range before his heart attack and spiked even higher, to near 80 percent, as Americans closed ranks behind their stricken leader.
Any lessons here for Hillary Clinton following her latest campaign misfortune—a pneumonia diagnosis? When you’re in a hole, stop digging, cowboy-philosopher Will Rogers reportedly prescribed. Unfortunately, Secretary Clinton initially leaned toward the JFK model of hiding illness, until she fainted from reported dehydration at the 9/11 memorial service. Candidates shouldn’t need a public collapse to force them to reveal their medical conditions. Although it’s understandable that she didn’t want to validate the right-wing narrative that she is unwell, Mrs. Clinton not only did just that, but chose to go down the path of secrecy, which only contributed to the common meme of her untrustworthiness.
Hillary might have garnered some sympathy for her condition if she had come forward with the news that months of hard campaigning had exacted a toll. But she still has time to turn her latest stumble into a potential policy tactic. Mrs. Clinton should expand on the comments she made upon returning to the campaign trail after resting at home on doctor’s orders. “When I’m under the weather, I can afford to take a day off. Millions of Americans can’t,” she noted. That led the former first lady, who tried to reform health care insurance more than two decades ago, to observe that many Americans still don’t have health coverage because it is too costly. They go to work sick or lose wages if illness keeps them at home. This is the perfect time for candidate Clinton to follow columnist David Brooks’s advice to address how the Affordable Care Act could be revised to be more effective and benefit millions of Americans.
“Hillary: Going Viral!” isn’t exactly the bumper sticker Mrs. Clinton hoped to see at this late date on her obstacle-strewn road to the White House. Her ill health was certainly ill timed, but she can learn the lessons of history by being more like Ike.
Dr. Barbara A. Perry is the White Burkett Miller Center Professor of Ethics and Institutions at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, where she is Director of Presidential Studies. For an overview of Mrs. Clinton’s precedent-setting tenure as first lady, see Perry’s chapter in in 42: Inside the Presidency of Bill Clinton. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.