Why the issue is not so much the perception of Hillary Clinton’s health but the perception of how she handles crises with half-truths and obfuscations.
September 12, 2016
Hillary Clinton’s apparent collapse leaving the 9/11 memorial service early due to what was at first described as “overheating” and later as “dehydration brought upon by pneumonia” diagnosed two days earlier, has stirred a lot of debate about her health with partisans on all sides weighing in about the seriousness of her condition and whether that merits attention.
Why Does a President’s Health Matter So Much?
One of the questions an observer outside the United States may first have is the American obsession with the health of a President (or Presidential candidate) in the first place.
In the unitary Executive as practiced in the United States, the President serves both as a symbol of the State as well as the executive in charge of creating policy and running the day-to-day Government. This is unlike say, the British system where the Monarch is the symbol of the State with ceremonial responsibilities (and some emergency powers) and the Prime Minister is the actual executive of the Government.
With these two roles conflated in one person, the US President has come to have the pressure of projecting robust health, cheerfulness and power reflecting the self-importantance, perceived greatness and vitality of the country, while also promoting his or her political and policy expertise to run the country and beyond.
This robust health projection need is why FDR’s polio and ill-health was kept – by mutual consent with the media – out of papers and photographs; and why John Kennedy wore a concealed back brace (including on the day he was shot, something that might have contributed to his head staying upright for the second, fatal headshot after the first went through his chest.)
So whereas Britain could have Gordon Brown as Prime Minister from 2007-10 – man blind in one-eye, such a possibility in the US is remote (apart from the difference in electoral policies where the PM is the elected leader of a parliamentary faction in power versus directly elected by the people as a President is).
Thus the image conscious part of the US President’s role virtually requires the candidate to publicly sport a bright dentist-approved smile and confident, striking body language and robust health and energy at all times, a requirement that disqualifies many deeper thinkers and experienced policy makers from running. (Indeed part of Bernie Sanders anti-establishment persona was his lack of airs about his disheveled hair, tight smile and hunched shoulders.)
Of course Presidents are human and one can feel sympathetic to Clinton’s predicament of apparently coming down with pneumonia in the post-Labor day home stretch to Election Day.
Indeed an argument of many Clinton acolytes who have argued – rather disingenuously – that if anything she should be commended on her strength (rather than weakness) for continuing to show up when she was secretly sick.
The Larger Point: The Obfuscation
But the more pertinent point is that, while opponents will seize her current ill-health as evidence of her “unfitness for office” as part of the obsession with the health of a President, Clinton’s campaign kept her pneumonia diagnosis secret revealing it only after it could not be publicly hidden. First they offered “overheating” as an initial (delayed) response and only when even pro-Clinton media outlets commented on her collapsing on a relatively balmy day, was her alleged pneumonia diagnosis revealed many hours later.
The use of the word “alleged” in the last sentence is deliberate because the whole Clinton reponse to what could have been a controlled revelation of her illness is typical of the aura of untrustworthiness and legal chicanery that surrounds her.
It can honestly be argued that her pneumonia or perhaps even something more serious should not be a part of Presidential politics, but instead of fighting that at the get-go, Clinton seems to accept the rules of the game, and only when caught violating them, questions the validity of said rules. So after denying she sent classified emails from a private server (that she amateurishly administered vs using at least using a more secure corporate account like Google’s), when caught out, part of her response is to question the validity of some of the classifications. (Even as she told her subordinates to follow the rules).
Being a lawyer by training, this kind of three-card-Monty playing with words and definitions to find loopholes and post-facto justifications is second nature to her. (Parents will recognize this tendency also.) But it is precisely this too-clever-by-half habit and penchant for secrecy that has caused her disapproval ratings to hover near Trump’s.
For example, pneumonia can often be a symptom of an immune system compromised by some underlying, more serious disease. So if tomorrow an causative disease is revealed, technically Clinton would not have lied about the proximate cause of her illness, just obfuscated the underlying cause.
Clinton’s delay in communicating her health issues – and even this only when publicly forced to – has given not just new life to various darker theories about her health but have confirmed the worst opinions of those who are even on the fence about her trustworthiness and ability to manage even simple issues with candor rather than Nixonian obfuscation.
And the latter might do more damage than the former.