Hillary Clinton coughed on stage last week, and on Sunday she made an early departure from a 9/11 memorial service. According to video posted by a bystander, she required assistance getting into a van as she left, and she may have fainted.
For hours after, her campaign said only that she had become “overheated” after 90 minutes at the ceremony, on a summer morning in lower Manhattan. This raised concern and fueled speculation. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza declared, “Hillary Clinton’s Health Just Became a Real Issue in the Presidential Campaign.” He argued that the coughing and the fatigue in isolation needn’t have raised an eyebrow, but taken together, “talk of Clinton's health [is] no longer just the stuff of conspiracy theorists.”
By the afternoon, the campaign released a statement from Clinton’s physician, Lisa Bardack, who said she had diagnosed the candidate with pneumonia on Friday, and “she was put on antibiotics, and advised to rest and modify her schedule.”
Pneumonia would explain both the coughing and fatigue. In contrast to the classically severe bacterial pneumonias that are a common cause of death in older and chronically ill people, a relatively mild “walking pneumonia”—usually caused by an atypical microorganism like Mycoplasma—tends to leave a person feeling well enough to walk around despite fighting a significant infection. Patients often don’t take adequate time to rest and recover, but try to operate while coughing and feeling fatigued.
The condition is common and treatable, and as a cause of Clinton’s symptoms—even for those who have no trust in the candidate’s physician—this is simply a much more likely diagnosis than anything more serious. And having pneumonia, especially of the variety where a person is so high-functioning, does not raise concern over her ability to execute the duties of the office. Presidents can and have served well with much more serious conditions (coronary artery disease, paralysis from Guillain-Barré syndrome, Addison’s disease, and, of course, various bullet wounds).
Rather, Clinton was told to rest and take it easy, but instead made a point of going to a 9/11 memorial service.
If there is cause for concern, it’s over how questions surrounding her health have been handled by the campaign. I’ve lambasted The Bornstein Letter, which deemed Trump “the healthiest person ever elected president,” but not so much because I’m concerned that Trump is physically unfit for office. It’s more concerning that he would trust a doctor who deems that note sufficient and professional.
In the same way, the relevant point about Clinton’s health seems to be her decision about what to disclose. She was diagnosed on Friday, according to Bardack, but the campaign didn’t disclose that publicly until things were out of control on Sunday—when the video of her appearing to faint had been retweeted more than 10,000 times.
That was happening in the context of months of defamatory speculation on the part of conservative pundits and politicians who have implied that she has some physical impairment that should concern voters. A transparent candidate would talk with the press about her health at the point when the public is so concerned. At least some confusion and theorizing may have been avoided if the campaign had been forthcoming about the pneumonia diagnosis as it unfolded—not necessarily in some grand announcement, but simply by allowing reporters access to the candidate who would address her status.
Eight years ago, President Obama’s physician, David Scheiner, was criticized for writing a brief, 276-word note for the 47-year-old with no significant medical history. Last week, Scheiner wrote in The Washington Post that Clinton and Trump should both share more medical records, at least in part because they are more than 20 years older than Obama was in 2008. Scheiner makes an example of John McCain, who was 72 years old during that election: He released 1,200 pages of medical records to the press.
This time both candidates have shared relatively little (and Trump has shared less). I’m not certain that it needs to be standard practice to disclose every minor historic detail and every test result. In isolation, every errant data point could be spun into its own armchair diagnosis by pundits. The most value will continue to come from the overall assessment of a long-time personal physician who can put it all together in context. But given that a lot of people seem concerned right now, genuinely or not, in hindsight it seems like Clinton’s doctor’s note—and Trump’s—should’ve been something closer to McCain’s.
It’s also possible that no amount of disclosure would quell disingenuous theories. At this point it’s difficult to imagine what would. And the more attention we pay to physical stamina, the less goes to policy and character.