Of Presidents and Health, History Replete with Secrecy, Lies

Historians in the News
tags: presidential history

Throughout American history, an uncomfortable truth has been evident: Presidents have lied about their health.

In some cases, the issues were minor, in others quite grave. And sometimes it took decades for the public to learn the truth.

Now President Donald Trump has been diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease. The White House initially said he had “mild symptoms.” By Friday evening, he was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. After a rosy press conference by the president’s medical team, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said Saturday that Trump had gone through a “very concerning” period Friday and that the next 48 hours would be critical in terms of his care.

Pandemics have cursed the presidencies of both Trump and Woodrow Wilson. Each played down the viruses that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Both presidents got sick — and each had to decide how much to tell the public.


Trump has said he has played down the pandemic so as not to create panic, but there were political reasons for doing so. Seeking another four years in office, Trump did not want the U.S. economy to tank before the Nov. 3 election.

“The Wilson administration, for a very different reason, completely downplayed the pandemic,” said John Barry, an adjunct professor in public health at Tulane University whose book “The Great Influenza” chronicles the 1918-19 pandemic that sickened Wilson and killed 675,000 Americans. “Wilson was concerned that any negative news about anything would detract from the war effort — decrease the energy that people would put into winning the war. In this case, there are more strictly political benefits.”

William Howell, professor of American politics at the University of Chicago, wonders how transparent the White House will be about Trump’s case of COVID-19.

“He is obviously going to be eager to get back onto the campaign trail,” Howell said. “He has all kinds of incentives to signal strength and to get back into the mix. He’s going to want to.”

But he added: “This is a president who’s been less than straightforward over the course of his presidency about all manner of factual issues. And so, is he to be believed is a good cause of real concern.”

He said the pathology of COVID-19 and the virus in 1918 are “very similar, and that’s a little scary.”


According to historian Robert Dallek, President John F. Kennedy suffered more pain and illness than most people knew and took as many as eight medications a day, including painkillers, stimulants, sleeping pills and hormones to keep him alive. Dallek, who wrote a biography on Kennedy, examined medical files from the last eight years of Kennedy’s life before Kennedy was assassinated.

As president, Kennedy was known for having a bad back, and since his death, biographers have pieced together details of other illnesses, including persistent digestive problems and Addison’s disease, a life-threatening lack of adrenal function. Kennedy went to great lengths to conceal his ailments, even denying to reporters that he had Addison’s disease.

Read entire article at Associated Press

comments powered by Disqus