INDIANAPOLIS — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s wobbly departure from 9/11 commemorative ceremonies is a big deal, but not for the reasons her opponents think.
Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, and his amen chorus have started a stage-whispering campaign that Clinton’s health is bad and used the occasion to turn up the volume on their complaints.
I’m not inclined to take their word for it, for a couple of reasons.
The first is that — like most of them — I’m not a doctor. And, although I’m aware that the Trump campaign from time to time has enlisted purported doctors to try to make its case, I’m also aware that no credible M.D. will offer either a diagnosis or a prognosis without first examining the patient.
The second reason is Trump’s hands on this question are far from sterile. He apparently dictated his own report of his health and fitness for office to his doctor while he waited in his limo outside the doctor’s office. It’s written with all the detail and complexity of a child’s early reader board book.
Until he shows us his actual medical report, I’m not going to pay much attention to what he has to say about another candidate’s health.
That said, Clinton’s health scare Sunday matters.
That she had been diagnosed by her own doctor as having pneumonia on Friday and did not disclose that diagnosis until Sunday evening — and then only to try to quash a political firestorm — shows she either doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept what a president owes the nation she plans to serve.
This country has a lousy record of making sure the people we entrust with the great power and responsibility of the presidency are healthy enough to meet the demands of the office.
We can go back to the stroke that incapacitated Woodrow Wilson in the months following the conclusion of World War I. Because the president was unable to function, his wife Edith Galt Wilson served as gatekeeper — and, some say, an unelected regent. While the world was emerging from a cataclysm of epic proportions and the United States struggled to find its footing in a world turned upside down, we effectively had no leadership in the White House.
A generation later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for and won re-election in 1944 when every morning he awoke was another day he cheated death. His doctors and his aides concealed the fact that FDR was so ill he barely could function. As the United States neared the end of the greatest war in human history and strove to lead the new world that would emerge, its leader could not stay awake in meetings or even work more than a fraction of a day without collapsing.
John F. Kennedy’s presidency presented a different dilemma. Because JFK suffered from Addison’s disease and endured often crippling back troubles, he relied on a frightening mix of painkillers and other medications to get through his days. The record is clear that Kennedy guided us through the Cuban Missile Crisis while under the influence of some heavy-duty drugs.
And, of course, there is ample evidence that the dementia and diminished capacity that define Alzheimer’s had begun to manifest themselves during the latter days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. His wife Nancy Reagan and his aides also concealed that information from the public — at a time when America was trying to negotiate the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The issue here isn’t that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump may suffer from one ailment or another from time to time. They are human beings. Human beings are subject to illnesses.
And that’s OK.
But the presidency isn’t an entitlement.
It’s a trust.
We Americans entrust our presidents with awesome power. Part of the deal is that our presidents should — no, must — assure they are physically capable of wielding such power responsibly.
I can understand why Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton might not want to share their medical records. Some medical questions are sensitive, even embarrassing.
The best way, though, for both Clinton and Trump to maintain their privacy would have been to stay in private life.
They both chose to run for president.
They’re both asking us to trust them.
Such trust has to be earned.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.