Solomon: Sick Politics

by Ioana Solomon | 9/15/16 12:30am

President Barack Obama’s gray hair, tired eyes and wrinkled forehead tell us one thing: leading this country, carrying its weight on your shoulders and pushing it through all the hurdles that come its way is not easy. His job demands an incredible amount of stamina — enough to travel to multiple countries in a week, giving speeches in all of them while making monumental military decisions and staying on top of domestic issues. It demands the agility and intellectual capacity to process information quickly, make swift yet calculated decisions and handle almost inhumane levels of stress.

When we elect our presidents, we expect that they know what this job requires and are willing to take on these hardships. We also expect that they are physically and mentally capable of doing what they need to do for this country, especially in times of trouble. Naturally, their health comes into question. As responsible citizens, we should worry if we think one of our candidates is in any way unequipped to serve us well. Wanting transparency in their medical records and voicing concerns over their health is thus entirely justified, but there comes a point where we need to draw a line between what is a genuine concern and what is simply a petty attack. In this election, we have been leaning toward the latter.

This fixation over candidates’ health has reached an unacceptable level. Instead of genuine, realistic worry about our candidates as human beings, we see medical issues as a battleground for conspiracy theories and vile attacks over conditions neither candidate can actually control.

Historically, many candidates running for national office have had some sort of medical complication, and most have attempted to withhold that information. MSNBC political reporter Alex Seitz-Wald notes that “Bob Dole, John Kerry and John McCain were all cancer survivors who had been wounded in combat. All three are still active: Kerry is secretary of state, McCain is running for reelection in the Senate in Arizona and Dole, at 93, attended the Republican National Convention and still gives interviews.”

Presidents especially strive to keep their medical issues separate from the public perception of their work. Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as president while paralyzed from the waist down. While the extent of his paralysis was kept relatively hidden from public view, his illness was widely recognized and for the most part not used to discredit his merits as president.

Donald Trump’s doctor recently released a bombastic description of his health, using superlative language to make bizarre and medically improbable assertions. In saying that Trump’s recent physical exam is “showing only positive results,” that his laboratory tests have come back “astonishingly excellent” and that, if elected, Trump “unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” Dr. Bornstein sounds much more like the candidate himself than like a respected medical professional and raises doubts about the veracity of his claims.

The Trump campaign has also attacked Hillary Clinton’s health. Such concerns may be amplified for some after video footage appeared in which she needed to be propped up and helped into her van by staff. Her campaign later admitted that Clinton had been recently diagnosed with pneumonia and was suffering from dehydration. Even this can be unduly harmful for her campaign — sexist stereotypes that enforce an image of women as generally frailer and weaker are likely to make any health-related accusations seem more probable to the general public. Yet there is also something simply inhumane about constantly attacking a person for entirely normal vulnerabilities.

Just like everything else in this election, partisans’ focus on health has gone too far. Regardless of who wins, we will have the oldest president in history. If we want supremely healthy individuals, then it is on us to push younger people to get involved in politics, streamlining the path toward the presidency so that candidates are more likely to be in their 40s and 50s and not in their 60s or 70s.

Faced with the options we have now, we shouldn’t overemphasize the need for perfect health. Elections are a tiring, stressful and grueling process, and while the real job is far worse, we must understand that the candidates are human. We have resources in place to help them do their job even when they aren’t at 100 percent, we have established chains of command for worst-case scenarios and we have so many examples of leaders who, despite not having perfect health, have shaped this country in incredible ways. Let us regain our decency and respect, let us start becoming more compassionate and understanding without losing our rationality and let us refocus on the issues that truly matter.