Presidential Illnesses Essay Research Paper Illness of

Presidential Illnesses Essay, Research Paper

Illness of the President and the 25th Amendment

Should a president or presidential candidate be required to disclose information about his

health to the public and press? Presidents consider strength an essential aspect of leadership and

many conceal their illnesses and state of health from the public eye ( Presidency 1). There have

been seven medical cover-ups in the White House, three of them being attempts to keep the public

out of the President s private life (Ferrell 1). Fourteen out of the past nineteen United States

Presidents have been seriously ill while in office (Dougherty 1) and one out of every five

Presidents did not survive their full term. Another two-thirds died prematurely after leaving the

White House (Young 3).

The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1967 to deal with illness of the

President. However, it was needed much earlier in history. President Madison was the fourth

President of the United States. His term in office was one of the first times in US history

that an official plan that deals with Presidential illness was needed. In 1817, he suffered from

a high fever for three weeks. Many White House visitors during this time spoke of the President

being in a state of delirium. He was so deranged during this period, that many White House

officials thought he was unable to do his job effectively (Young 4).

William Henry Harrison was inaugurated as President of the United States in 1841. He

delivered the longest inaugural address ever. It was very cold outside and he had no overcoat on

(Ferrell 2). Shortly afterwards, President Harrison developed pneumonia with hepatitis and

became very ill (Annas 4). The doctors in the 1800s were less educated and many practiced

Indian medicine. Anyone who felt like being a doctor could call themselves a doctor. Doctors

prescribed remedies such as suction cups, castor oil, ipecac, opium, and other treatments that did

nothing to help President Harrison. He died one month after his inaugural address (Ferrell 1-2).

The twelfth President Zachary Taylor made a speech at the future home of the Washington

Monument. It was an extremely hot day and to cool off, Taylor was eating a bowl of ice and

cherries. The ice contained contaminated water which caused President Taylor to develop

typhoid fever. Doctors gave him brandy and opium but, the typhoid fever took his life a within a

few days (Ferrell 2).

In 1881, President Garfield was shot by an assassin (Young 4). His doctors used their

fingers and unsterile instruments to dig in the wound to try and extract the bullet. It was not life

threatening and should have been left alone. Garfield developed infection from the doctors dirty

fingers and instruments. He died two and one half months later after a sac formed around the

wound and suddenly ruptured. (Ferrell 2).

During the term in office of President Grover Cleveland, the United States was not

involved in any affairs abroad. Things were so calm that President Cleveland occasionally even

answered the White House phone himself. The only real issue at the time was the matter of

currency. The value of silver suffered a dramatic downfall. Cleveland wanted to resolve the issue

by basing currency on gold. However, his Vice President, Stevenson, was a silverite and wanted

to keep using silver (Ferrell 3-4).

In 1889, President Grover Cleveland developed cancer of the mouth. He was determined

to keep his illness hidden from the public because of the bad financial shape that the country was

in at the time (Ferrell 1). Cleveland decided to have surgery to remove the tumor on a boat

traveling along the East River. Cleveland was a heavy drinker making the anesthetic not take

effect very easily. It as a very serious operation. Only about 250 similar operations had been

performed and one out of every seven of patients died (Ferrell 4-7). A portion of Cleveland s jaw

was removed and replaced with an artificial jaw so the President s speech would not be impaired.

The press was told that Cleveland had a toothache and had to have a tooth removed. Cleveland

spoke to Congress shortly after his surgery and no one realized that he recently had surgery

(Young 4).

President Cleveland served two terms and then retired (Ferrell 10). His surgery was kept

a secret until 1917 when a participating doctor, William W. Keen, told of the seriousness of his

surgery (Ferrell 3). In 1975, a tissue from Cleveland s jaw was examined and it was discovered

that his tumor was very low grade and would not have grown quickly. The same type of tumor is

found a lot in tobacco and alcohol users (Ferrell 11).

After the assassination of President McKinley he was taken to a small emergency hospital.

He should have been taken to the excellent general hospital that was also nearby. He died within

a few days because of poor medical judgment. He might have survived if he had been taken to the

larger and more experienced hospital after being shot (Ferrell 2-3).

President Woodrow Wilson had a family history of strokes and arteriosclerosis. He should

have never been nominated with his family s poor health history, but he looked strong and was in

seemingly good health so he was nominated (Ferrell 1-2). President Wilson was in office during

World War I. He went to Europe to work out the details of the Treaty of Versailles. He came

back from his trip exhausted and was having trouble getting the senate to approve the treaty. He

embarked on a rally to gain public support of the treaty after being advised by his doctor that he

needed rest and should not go (Lamb 5). While stopped for a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, the

President became ill and was rushed back to the White House. He suffered a massive stroke a few

days later (Ferrell 16). The first announcement to the public about the stroke was that he had

been through so much strain on the trip that his digestive organs suffered a serious reaction. The

second announcement said that he was simply overworked and suffered from exhaustion (Young

4). The truth was that he had complete paralysis on his left side (Presidency 1). This massive

stroke was hidden from the public because he was trying to pass the Treaty of Versailles and get

the League of Nations started. Wilson s physician during this time was not qualified. Wilson had

only appointed him because they were both born in Virginia (Ferrell 13). President Wilson spent

the remainder of his term as an invalid. Many people refer to this time as the regency of Edith

Wilson because she decided what issues the president would or would not be involved in

(Presidency 1).

The White House physician during the term of President Harding was Dr. Charles E.

Sawyer. He knew that Harding had heart problems, but gave no attention to them (Ferrell 1).

Harding suffered from high blood pressure and a heart that could not pump blood out of his lungs.

He was forced to sleep upright so that the blood would drain out of his lungs and allow him to

breath (Ferrell 20). After a trip from Arkansas to California in 1925, Harding became ill and was

given a physical by Dr. Sawyer as well as other physicians. It was discovered that he had an

irregular heartbeat. The doctors all agreed that it was nothing serious. Four days later the

President died from heart problems (Young 4). The public was told that the President died of

food poisoning from crabmeat he had eaten the night before (Lamb 19).

President Calvin Coolidge had a long political career in Massachusetts before becoming

President. As governor he was very active in the matters of his state (Lamb 12). In 1924, just

before winning the election, Coolidge s sixteen year old son died of blood poisoning. President

Coolidge was diagnosed with clinical depression. He lost interest in politics and the presidency,

spending half of the day sleeping. He had little interaction with his cabinet or Congress and gave

them instructions to handle matters of the government (Young 5).

The United States entered World War II on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The Unites States

President, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, concealed his declining health from the public. There

were two major health issues with President Roosevelt. The first was his high blood pressure

which would swing up and down erratically. The second problem was President Roosevelt s

incompetent physician, Ross T. McIntire (Ferrell 26-27).

McIntire once gave Roosevelt a bad prescription which was noticed by a doctor of lesser

rank than McIntire and changed. McIntire was embarrassed by the man of lower rank doing a

better job than himself and did all he could to keep this mistake a secret. Roosevelt s medical

records even disappeared from the locked safe at Bethesda Navel Hospital. Many officials said

McIntire was responsible for the disappearance of the medical records (Ferrell 27).

After trips to China, Egypt, and Teheran, for the Teheran Conference in December of

1945, Roosevelt s health began a rapid decline. After the trip he developed influenza with

bronchitis. Roosevelt postponed and even avoided political decisions. His blood pressure rose,

face thinned, his weight dropped, his hands shook, and his mouth hung open. The public began to

worry but Dr. McIntire, Roosevelt s physician, announced that Roosevelt had always had shaky

hands, he was just relaxing his mouth, and that the weight loss was good for him. Roosevelt

never regained his health completely (Ferrell 28-34).

President Roosevelt developed a growth above his left eyebrow which continued to grow

downward to his eye. The growth suddenly disappeared. Rumors spread throughout the

country that it was cancerous. The White House consistently denied the cancerous growth.

Years later it was announced that Roosevelt did have a growth removed, but that it was benign

(Lamb 3).

In the Spring of 1944, Roosevelt suffered from a mild gall bladder attack. Dr. McIntire,

gave him codeine to relieve the painful attack. He suffered another attack in May of 1944.

X-rays revealed a group of cholesterol stones. Dr. Bruenn, his cardiologist placed him on a low

fat diet. President Roosevelt s blood pressure continued to rise year after year. Dr. McIntire did

not take the readings very often so the slight increases did not alarm him.

The President s daughter, Anna, because worried about he father s declining health and

asked Dr. McIntire to try and improve it. So, on March 27, 1944, President Roosevelt was given

a physical at Bethesda Navel Hospital. After the physical, Dr. McIntire asked Dr. Bruenn to see

the President (Ferrell 33-34). Dr. Bruenn found the President with hypertension, obstructive

pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, an enlarged heart, a micro valve that was not closing

properly, and pressure on the aortic valve. Bruenn said with good treatment the President might

survive two more years. McIntire said Roosevelt was in good health for his age (Young 5).

Bruenn s prescription was digitizing, diet, and bed rest. McIntire said Roosevelt was the

President and there was no way he could have bed rest. If Bruenn had not come into the picture,

Roosevelt would have died from McIntire s incompetence. In ten days after Roosevelt received

treatment from Bruenn, his lungs cleared up and his heart got smaller. Bruenn became

Roosevelt s personal physician and McIntire became the spokesperson for Roosevelt s health. Dr.

McIntire continued telling the public that the president was in wonderful health. Once again, the

President s medical records disappeared from Bethesda Navel Hospital. McIntire was the suspect

because he would not want it to get out that he was incompetent throughout his care of the

president (Ferrell 36-38).

With the disapproval of his doctors, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term. He said

that nothing was going to interfere with his Presidency, especially while the United States was

involved in World War II. Members of the democratic party wanted to make sure he picked a

very capable and healthy Vice-President because they knew he most probably would not survive a

fourth term. Roosevelt nominated Truman (Ferrell 43).

In January of 1945, Roosevelt entered his fourth term. He was determined to do a good

job even if it killed him. One month into his fourth term, just after the Yalta Conference,

Roosevelt suddenly collapsed at the White House pool. Bruenn and McIntire were rushed to the

pool, but by the time they arrived, it was too late. President Roosevelt had suffered a massive

cerebral hemorrhage and died almost immediately (Ferrell 46-48).

Roosevelt s Vice President, Harry Truman, assumed the office of President. During

Truman s Presidency, an assassination attempt was made on him. The bullet missed him, killing a

Secret Service agent (Lamb 4).

In 1953, President Eisenhower was on the verge of a heart attack. The White House

announced that it was only a stomach ache. Then, in 1955, he had a severe heart attack and

was hospitalized for seven weeks. The press was told that this was a mild heart attack.

Dr. Synder announced that Eisenhower had an attack in Columbia a few years earlier. It was

concealed from the public for fear of a bad impact on his political career (Lamb 8-9). Six months

after his heart attack, it was discovered that Eisenhower has constricted intestines. He had

surgery and was hospitalized for three weeks (Young 5). In 1957, Eisenhower had a stroke,

caused by an aneurysm detected by doctors in 1955, but never treated.

President Eisenhower s doctors only gave him a fifty/fifty chance of surviving a second

term (Lamb 2). He choose to run and was inaugurated in 1961. President Eisenhower was

diagnosed with Madison s Disease, failure of the adrenal glands. He was on medication for

Madison s and never disclosed it to the public (Young 5). Eisenhower lived to be seventy-eight

years old. He was severely ill in his older days. He had stomach pain which continued until his

death (Lamb 15-16). After President Eisenhower s death, his family revealed to the public that he

did have Madison s Disease (Young 5).

It is ironic that our thirty-fifth President, John F. Kennedy, was responsible for the

physical fitness craze in America, yet was ill from the day he was born (Lamb 3). President

Kennedy had Addison s disease, a failure of the immune system. It is not curable, but easily

controlled by medicine. Addison s was denied by Kennedy, his assistants, and his family.

Kennedy had a deep rooted determination to be President and was fearful that if news spread

about Addison s Disease, his political career would be damaged. Kennedy falsely announced to

the public that he suffered from malaria he contracted while in the Pacific (Ferrell 151-152).

The first proof of Kennedy s Addison s Disease came from The Blairs who were writers.

They knew that after a trip to London, the President was taken to the New England Baptist

Hospital. He had been to the same doctor, Dr. Bartel, years earlier for a back problem, so the

Blairs assumed he went to see Dr. Bartel again. They visited Dr. Bartel to inquire about

Kennedy s health. He told them that Kennedy s back problem was congenital and that he did

have Addison s Disease. To control the disease, Dr. Bartel gave Kennedy DOCA shots every

three months and oral cortisone treatments daily. Dr. Bartel s treatment tremendously helped

Kennedy s health, although Kennedy needed back surgery in October of 1921. This was a very

risky surgery for people with Addison s Disease because of their weakened immune system.

Kennedy got a serious infection after the surgery and almost died (Ferrell 151-153).

The second proof of Addison s Disease came in 1955 from an issue of the AMA Journal.

A New York surgeon wrote about a patient of his having Addison s Disease. The magazine

article fit Kennedy s description so perfectly that the Blairs knew it was him. The Blairs published

a book later in 1955 about the two proofs they had of Kennedy s disease (Ferrell 153).

Kennedy was running in the election of 1960 against Johnson and Nixon. The publication

of the Blairs book made reporters wonder if Kennedy was healthier than Nixon or not. Johnson

was older and Kennedy supporters said a President should be young. In retaliation to this remark,

Johnson s supporters announced that Kennedy had Addison s disease. Kennedy quickly quieted

his talk of Johnson being too old for the Presidency. Kennedy won the election of 1960, and

ironically, he chose Johnson as his Vice President. His own supporters were angry because

during the election Johnson had announced that Kennedy had Addison s. Kennedy said it was

fine because the Vice Presidency meant nothing (Ferrell 153-154).

Dr. Travell was chosen by Kennedy to be his personal physician. Travell knew little about

Addison s Disease, but Kennedy chose her because during the campaign she said little about his

Addison s disease. To treat Kennedy s back problems, Travell gave him a rocking chair, a corset,

and anesthetic injections. Kennedy quickly got addicted to the shots. Other physicians realized

Kennedy was addicted to the injections and told Travell she could no longer be in charge of the

President s health care. Dr. Burkley became Kennedy s new physician. After Kennedy s death,

an autopsy was performed and Addison s was not mentioned. Burkley refused to comment on

this (Ferrell 154-156).

After Kennedy s death in 1967, the 25th Amendment was passed (Annas 3). It provides

instructions for the transfer of power from the President to the Vice-president. Section One says

that was the President is removed from office by death, illness, resignation, or impeachment, and

that power will go to the Vice-president. Section Two says after the Vice President moves up to

the President that he should nominate a new Vice-president. He should choose the new Vice

President from members of Congress or the Cabinet. Section Three says the President can send a

letter to Congress saying he can no longer fulfill his duties. When the President is ready to take

the office back, he can write a letter to Congress saying he is ready to fulfill his duties again.

Section Four gives the Vice-president and Congress the power to declare the president disabled

(Young 3).

Lyndon Johnson was a healthy child with the exception of whooping cough in the first

grade. Johnson was never confident about his political career. When he was threatened with a

loss, he spoke of withdrawing or got sick. When Johnson was twenty-nine years old he ran for

the House of Representatives. During the campaign, Johnson got appendicitis. Two days before

the vote, he was hospitalized because his appendix almost ruptured. He won the election because

the hospitalization was widely publicized, giving people a reason to vote for him (Gilbert


Johnson was nervous about his new job in the House. He developed a very bad rash on

his hands. When signing letters, he had to wrap his hands in a towel so the blood oozing from his

hands did not smear on the letter. He began to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, worked

long hours, and skipped meals. This took a heavy toll on his physical well being (Gilbert 179).

In 1941, Johnson ran for a place in the Senate. When he heard that his opposing party

was Texas governor, O Daniel, he had to be hospitalized for pneumonia and went into depression.

During the first week of his hospitalization, it was kept a secret. In the second week, the press

found out and spread the news. His loss in this election would be the only one in his political

career (Gilbert 179-180).

In late 1941, Johnson applied for Commissioner to the Navy. He had tonsillitis, sinusitis,

and kidney problems. His bronchial difficulties made him eligible for disability pay. He didn t

want the money, just the recognition of service related disabilities. He left the navy because

President Roosevelt made all Congressmen in the military go to inactive duty (Gilbert 181).

In 1948, Johnson ran for the Senate again. His opponent was Stevenson, the man who

took O Daniel s senate seat. During the campaign, Johnson got kidney stones that wouldn t pass.

He agreed to have surgery and recovered quickly. He won the election by a very narrow margin.

In 1955, Johnson was the Democratic Majority Leader. He smoked heavily, worked eighteen

hour days, and gained weight. He had a mild heart attack in June of 1955, and two weeks later,

he suffered a severe heart attack. He wouldn t go see a doctor because he did not want to ruin

his chances for the Presidency. He finally agreed to go see a doctor, who diagnosed him with

bradycardia syndrome, low blood pressure and pulse rate. He was very depressed and talked of

leaving politics. He stopped smoking, dieted, and lost weight. When he returned to the Senate,

he immediately started all the long hours and hard work again (Gilbert 180-186).

In the election of 1955, President Kennedy asked Johnson to be his Vice-president. It was

an easy job and would be good for Johnson s health. Johnson did not like being Vice-president

because he did not have any real power. On November 22, 1963 President Kennedy was shot and

the twenty-fifth amendment was enacted and Johnson assumed the Presidency. It was a bad

situation, but the transition went smoothly. Johnson began to worry that the stress of the

Presidency would hurt his health and told his family that he would not run in 1964 because his

health would not last. The first lady told him that he should run in 1964 because he would get

depressed watching someone else do his job (Gilbert 186-190).

Johnson won the election of 1964 by a huge landslide. Three days after his inauguration,

he was hospitalized for chest pains and a hacking cough. It was not a heart attack, just cold with

tracheal and bronchial infection. During his hospitalization, Winston Churchill died. When

Johnson heard the news, his temperature immediately went up and he was advised by doctors not

to attend the funeral. After three days, he went back to the White House, and assumed his busy

schedule, although, Mrs. Johnson told him to take it easy and rest (Gilbert 190-193).

In 1965, it was discovered that President Johnson had a large gallstone. It had to be

removed and would be risky with his heart condition. On October 8, the surgery took place at

Bethesda Navel Hospital, and went smoothly. He recovery was slow but that was expected for

his age. Johnson developed post-operative depression and wanted to resign from the Presidency.

In the middle of December, his doctors said he was fully recovered (Gilbert 193-197).

In 1973, the President called the Secret Service and told them he was ill. They rushed to

his bedside with an oxygen machine and found him lying on the floor beside the bed. Doctors

failed at attempts to revive him. He had suffered from a heart attack because two of his three

arteries were completely blocked. He was sixty-four years old (Gilbert 202).

The fortieth President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was the only President to

survive being shot in office (Lamb 3-4). In 1981, President Reagan was the target of an

assassination attempt. One half of his blood was lost, his left lung collapsed, and he had no

recordable blood pressure (Young 5-6). The public was told that Reagan was joking with his

doctors during surgery, but he was really with in five minutes of death (Lamb 12-13). The twenty

fifth amendment should have been invoked but, Mr. Darman locked up the succession papers so

they would be unavailable (Ferrell 158). His children were told not to rush to the hospital and the

first lady did not spend the night in the hospital so that the public would be unaware of the

seriousness of the situation (Young 5-6).

In 1985, President Reagan had an operation for colon cancer, lasting about 10 hours.

During that time, the vice-president became the acting President. Two years later in 1987,

Reagan had prostate surgery. The doctors were flown in just in time for the surgery and flown

out as soon as it was over. The press was not allowed to question the doctors because of

the short time period that they were in Washington, D.C.. Updates on the President s health

came only from the Press Secretary (Ferrell 158-159).

President George Bush was the first US President to draw up a contingency plan

(Dougherty 1-2). Shortly after taking office, Bush held a meeting to discuss a plan of succession

in case he became ill in office. He wanted the public to be well informed of his health, therefore

the results of his annual physical were always released to the public (Bush 282).

In May of 1991, Bush noticed his heart beating irregularly after taking a jog. He was

hospitalized for three days. His personal physician, Burton J. Lee III, diagnosed him with Graves

Disease. He had an overactive thyroid (Ferrell 159). He was also becoming tired from the

stresses of the Gulf War and needed some rest. Medication cured his thyroid (Presidency 1). In

1992, the President collapsed while at dinner with the Prime Minister of Japan. Dr. Lee

diagnosed this as gastroenteritis (Ferrell 159-160). Mrs. Bush said by the next after noon, he was

much better, just terribly embarrassed (Bush 450-452).

The current President of the United States, Bill Clinton, is one of the youngest Presidents

in history. During his two terms, he has kept the public well informed of his health (Lamb 6). In

1997, he had surgery to repair a torn tendon. The twenty fifth amendment should have been

invoked, but was not (Young 6). President Clinton has cronic laryngitis which is caused by

excess acid in his stomach. While Clinton sleeps, the acid travels up his esophagus and effects his

vocal cords. His weight swings up and down dramatically, causing stress to his heart. He has

been urged by doctors to keep his weight more stable. Clinton has a considerable amount of

trouble with allergies and takes allergy shots several times a month (Lamb 6-7).

There have been many medical cover-ups during the terms of the forty-two Presidents of

the United States. Candidates feel it will hurt their political career if American citizens find out

they are not in perfect health. The United States should not elect a President on the basis of their

health, but on their ability to perform the duties of the President. Citizens should respect the

privacy of political officials or candidates will be discouraged from running for office in the future

(Annas 7).

Works Cited

Annas, George A. The Health of the President and Presidential Candidates– The Public s Right

to Know. The New England Journal of Medicine. 333.14 (5 Oct. 1995): 8pp. Online.

Netdoor. 11 Oct. 2000.

Bush, Barbara. Barbara Bush-A Memoir. New York: The Easton Press, 1994.

Dougherty, Jill. What To Do When A President Becomes Disabled? CNN/Time. (3 Dec.

1997): 2pp. Online. Netdoor. 11 Oct. 2000.

Ferrell, Robert H. Ill Advised: Presidential Health and Public Trust. Columbia: University of

Missouri Press, 1992.

Gilbert, Robert E. Interview with Lamb. National Cable Satellite Corporation. 1997.

Gilbert, Robert E. The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House. New York:

Fordham University Press, 1998.

Gilbert, Robert E. The Presidency Can Be A Killer. Wall Street Journal. (25 Jan. 2000):

2pp. Online. Netdoor. 11 Oct. 2000.

Young, James, Lawrence Moore, Robert Robinson, and Robert Gilbert. Interview with Dean

Cal Farak. Annenberg Presidential Series; Presidential Illness and the 25th Amendment.

Bookings Institution. Washington, D.C.: Federal News Service. 21 Oct. 1998.


Netdoor. 11 Oct. 2000.


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