Michele Bachmann's Migraines and the History of Presidential Ailments

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Last night, the Daily Caller posted a story about Michele Bachmann's crippling migraine headaches, which a number of Bachmann staffers describe as incapacitating and requiring "heavy pill use" to medicate. The story's author, Jonathan Strong, characterized the revelations as "potentially disqualifying." The Bachmann staffers, he said, were moved to come forward out of concern for what might happen if Bachmann were to become president. I'll leave it to others to speculate about whether this should indeed be disqualifying. But I did want to mention that The Atlantic has written extensively about the long list of presidents whose ailments were more severe than migraines and required powerful treatments, the nature of which were often concealed from the public. Our December 2002 cover story, "The Medical Ordeals of JFK," by the historian Robert Dallek, is a good example. It revealed the extent of Kennedy's suffering from Addison's disease, "a condition of the adrenal glands characterized by a deficiency of the hormones needed to regulate blood sugar, sodium and potassium, and the response to stress," and how it was concealed (in a foreshadowing of Watergate, Richard Nixon's operatives ransacked the office of an endocrinologist treating Kennedy looking for damaging evidence). Dallek gained access to the files of Kennedy's pharmacologist and discovered "an extraordinary variety of medications," including pain-killers and anti-psychotics, which became the basis for his Atlantic story. Here's an excerpt:

Concealing one's true medical condition from the voting public is a time-honored tradition of the American presidency. William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia in April of 1841, after only one month in office, was the first Chief Executive to hide his physical frailties. Nine years later Zachary Taylor's handlers refused to acknowledge that cholera had put the President's life in jeopardy; they denied rumors of illness until he was near death, in July of 1850, sixteen months into his presidency. During Grover Cleveland's second term, in the 1890s, the White House deceived the public by dismissing allegations that surgeons had removed a cancerous growth from the President's mouth; a vulcanized-rubber prosthesis disguised the absence of much of Cleveland's upper left jaw and part of his palate. The public knew nothing about the implant until one of the President's physicians revealed it in 1917, nine years after Cleveland's death.

In the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all, to one degree or another, held back the full truth about medical difficulties that could have jeopardized their hold on the Oval Office. Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1919 that made him merely a figurehead during the last year and a half of his term. After Coolidge's sixteen-year-old son died of blood poisoning, in the summer of 1924, Coolidge himself struggled with a clinical depression that made inactivity and passivity the principal features of his Administration. It has been well known for some time that Roosevelt went to great lengths to conceal how physically incapacitated he had been rendered by polio. If voters had known the truth about his generally deteriorating health in 1944, it is unlikely that they would have re-elected him a third time--but they did not know, and FDR died just three months into his fourth term, in April of 1945. Though Eisenhower was much more open about his health than any of his predecessors, the full disclosure of his maladies (including heart disease) in 1956, when he was sixty-six, might have discouraged the country from electing him President again; he had a heart attack during his first term and suffered a number of other medical problems, including a minor stroke, during his second.

The lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history--no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed. Kennedy, like so many of his predecessors, was more intent on winning the presidency than on revealing himself to the public. On one level this secrecy can be taken as another stain on his oft-criticized character, a deception maintained at the potential expense of the citizens he was elected to lead. Yet there is another way of viewing the silence regarding his health--as the quiet stoicism of a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain and distress and performing his presidential (and pre-presidential) duties largely undeterred by his physical suffering. Does this not also speak to his character, but in a more complex way?

Not only the extent of Kennedy's medical problems but the lengths to which he and his family went to conceal them were significant. According to Bill Walton, a Kennedy family friend, JFK was followed everywhere during the 1960 presidential campaign by an aide with a special bag containing the "medical support" that was needed all the time. When the bag was misplaced during a trip to Connecticut, Kennedy telephoned Governor Abe Ribicoff and said, "There's a medical bag floating around and it can't get in anybody's hands ... You have to find that bag." If the wrong people got hold of it, he said, "it would be murder." (The bag was recovered.)

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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