President Grover Cleveland has been mostly forgotten by
history, but he did do a few things as president that had not
been done before.
His major footnote in U.S. history is that he is the only person
who was elected president, lost re-election, and came back to
be re-elected four years later.
He was a Democrat during a half century era when most U.S.
presidents were Republican. In fact, between 1860 and 1912 he
was the only Democrat to be elected to the Oval Office.
But there was at least one other noteworthy distinction about
Grover Cleveland when he was president.
Soon after he took office for the second time in 1893, Mr.
Cleveland noticed a bump on the roof of his mouth that was
getting larger and larger. He was, as is well-known, a heavy
cigar smoker. Seeking medical advice, he was informed that he
had a tumor that had to be removed as soon as possible.
Worrying that news of his diagnosis would shock the nation
and the stock market, he arranged to take a “fishing trip” on
the private yacht “Oneida” for four days, with an itinerary of
New York City to Cape Cod.
The yacht, with six of the top surgeons of the day, actually
anchored off Long Island, and using anaesthetic, the surgeons
performed risky and, for that time, fairly unprecedented
techniques for removal of the tumor. Mr. Cleveland had a
trademark bushy moustache, and the surgeons were able to
preserve it during the operation. Afterwards, the moustache
successfully hid any visible evidence of the cancer surgery.
It turned out to be the first presidential medical cover-up in
modern history. The Cleveland White House denied all rumors
and even countered a published story about the cancer by
smearing the reputation of the enterprising reporter who had
uncovered it. That reporter’s reputation was only restored
almost 20 years later, after Mr. Cleveland had died, when one
of the surgeons came forward with the true story.
A quarter of a century later, President Woodrow Wilson
suffered a stroke that permanently incapacitated him, but it was
kept a secret while Mrs.Wilson, in effect, ran the government.
Twenty years later, White House physicians kept the news that
President Franklin Roosevelt was dying from the public, and
only the timing of his death just after his fourth inauguration
kept the previous vice president, Henry Wallace, an admirer of
Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, from taking power.
Fifteen years later, John Kennedy became president although
he knew he had Addison’s Disease, a then-fatal condition that
would soon take his life. Like so many matters in the Kennedy
administration, it was kept a secret. Twenty-five years later,
President Reagan had an operation for cancer while in office,
but the condition was not named.
These stories of secrecy about presidential medical conditions
are especially relevant this year when the two major party
nominees are about 70 years old, and one of them is showing
chronic signs of physical distress.
As the son of a physician, however, I think the current news
preoccupation with Hillary Clinton’s health is more sensational
than disqualifying. Her doctors now concede that she has
“walking” pneumonia, a serious but not life-threatening
condition. Her fainting at a New York City event recently is
most disturbing for the fact that her attending physicians
allowed her in public when she should have been resting. In the
case of any senior citizen over 60, even mild pneumonia can
become much more serious if not properly cared for --- and that
means lots of rest in addition to medication.
To be fair to Mrs. Clinton, she is a major party nominee for
president of the United States, and it is understandable that she
wants to appear in public, especially since her opponents are
making her health an issue. Her physicians and her staff,
however, have an obligation to protect her just as much as the
Secret Service does. No reasonable person could object to her
taking several days off to recuperate.
Her opponents are not to be blamed for raising the issue. They
have been encouraged to do so by that long-standing political
temptation for secrecy being indulged by the Clinton campaign,
something that goes back to that “fishing trip” on a yacht in 1893
(anchored, ironically, not that far from Mrs. Clinton’s current
home in Chappaqua, NY).
President Cleveland got away with avoiding transparency, as did
several presidents who succeeded him, because there was no
internet, social media and search engines. Those days are over.
If the Clinton campaign decides now to be transparent, the
voters can turn to the most pressing issues of the presidential
contest. Otherwise, she will give her opponents an irretrievable
gift, and perhaps, as well, the election.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.