Tanzina Vega: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. On Friday, President Donald Trump, and First Lady Melania Trump announced they had tested positive for COVID-19. Later that day, the president was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland for treatment. The President Trump is not the first sitting president whose health has been compromised while in office, there's a long history of health concerns in the White House, both physical and mental, from President Abraham Lincoln suspected depression to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's struggles with polio.
Back with us to discuss his professor Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Barbara, thanks for sticking around with us.
Barbara Perry: Oh, it's always good to be with you.
Tanzina: What are some of the more notable, medical problems, psychological or physical, that past presidents have had while in office?
Barbara: You mentioned, Abraham Lincoln. It's known now that he had suffered from depression. He also had Marfan's disease and at this time in the 1860s, while he was president, of course, there would have been no treatment for depression, no cognitive behavioral therapy through counseling, or certainly no pharmaceuticals that he could have been given. I would say even to this day, it would be very difficult for a president or a presidential candidate to admit to having a mental illness. I think even just our society is not particularly open to that.
We saw what happened in the 1970s. It was Thomas Eagleton, who had been named to the vice presidential slot by George McGovern in 1972, and he admitted to having had mental illness and having shock treatments, and he had to get off the ticket. Physical issues of course are paramount in presidential history and that those we have known about sometimes after the fact. You can think of Grover Cleveland having cancer surgery on a friend's yacht in the middle of a river, because he was afraid people would find out that he was afflicted with cancer.
You mentioned FDR and polio. People did know that he had been afflicted with polio in the early 1920s and he went on to be elected the governor of New York and then, of course, four times as president, that wasn't so much the issue, but the fact that at the end, for his run for the fourth time in 1944, he had a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, but that his physicians didn't even want to tell him that it was so serious.
Tanzina: Woodrow Wilson got the flu during the 1918 flu pandemic. How was that handled? Are there any parallels? Because so many people have been talking about the 1918 flu pandemic and, but do you see any historical parallels there?
Barbara: I do. It was fortunate for him, unfortunate that he came victim to the flu of the pandemic of 1918-19, but fortunate for him that he was out of the country. The bad news on that score though, was that he was at the Versailles Treaty negotiations when he came down with it and apparently it was a very bad case. He had to take to his bed, he was terribly feverish, and even went into some delirium, but then came back and was able to go back into the negotiations.
But again, it was helpful for him to be out of the country and, of course, with media and issues related to trying to navigate messaging and that sort of thing at the time, not nearly as much as we have today, so they could keep that secret. But then when he came back to the States, he underwent this very debilitating tour around the country and a whistle stop to try to get people to support the Versailles Treaty and get the word to the Senate that they should approve it.
It failed and then he got back to the White House and had a terribly debilitating stroke that was also kept secret from the American people. Folks to this day, say that Mrs. Wilson, the first lady, was basically running the white house.
Tanzina: You mentioned the media, Barbara, and I'm wondering, I mean, right now, at least with President Trump, we're seeing a lot of reporters who are also saying they're concerned about not having the true, the full story, at least enough transparency from the president, but has the media been complicit in helping cover up presidential illnesses in the past?
Barbara: Yes, they have been and we can go back to FDR. He had asked, for example, that he not be pictured in his wheelchair and that he asked that the media be very careful on how he was portrayed. He did not want to ever be portrayed being carried because he would have to be carried from a car to a podium as an example, or they would wait until he was up and buckled into his leg braces and then he could stand and hold onto someone's arm and then have a cane in the other hand. It would look as though he was standing under his own power or even moving just a little bit under his own power, but that the media had to be complicit and they wanted to follow.
I think that these were his wishes and he wished not to be viewed as being a paraplegic to the American people and to the world. I think as well with president Kennedy, there had been word that had gotten out from his rival Lyndon Johnson at the 1960 convention, that he had Addison's disease and he did have Addison's disease. His camp, including physicians, pooh-poohed the idea, pushed it aside and said, doesn't he look healthy? Kennedy always fought to look healthy. Just as the media covered up his womanizing, I think in many ways they also were complicit to cover up his many medical conditions.
Tanzina: Barbara, have there been instances where president's medical conditions affected policy and, or their ability to do the job?
Barbara: Well, I would say, yes. In, for Eisenhower, for example, although I need to give Ike the gold star for his five stars, his generalship, but the fact that he was the most transparent, I think you can say of any of our presidents about very serious health conditions that he had. Think of it this way, he had his severe heart attack in 1955 while visiting his in-laws in Denver and obviously at that time they did not have the treatments for heart diseases as they have now. They didn't have a heart bypass surgery available to doctors, they didn't have the pharmaceuticals they had now.
He was in an oxygen tent for a while, but he was confined to the hospital for seven weeks, in Denver. He was so seriously ill that they couldn't get him back to Washington. Just the very fact that he was so ill, had to have an impact on policies at the time, just that he couldn't be the forthright and a strong president that we would have expected. Thank goodness, actually for Richard Nixon, because he was a good vice president and he was very much engaged in the process at the time, but Ike said to his presidents and his press secretary, tell the people everything.
Tanzina: Professor Barbara Perry is the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Barbara, thanks so much for joining us.
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