Fit for office? A brief history of leaders' illnesses

Hillary Clinton can take heart from former presidents and prime ministers who didn’t let health problems hold them back. JFK had Addison’s disease, François Mitterrand had cancer and Winston Churchill had depression, a heart attack and a stroke

All humanoids suffer illness, but very few of us get sick only two months before we’re due to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump to decide who will become the most powerful person in the world. The news that Hillary Clinton is suffering from pneumonia points up a truth that distinguishes politicians from the rest of us: for them, illness is not a phenomenon that has to be treated only medically, but is also something that must be managed by teams of PR goons working round the clock so that their boss doesn’t seem too feeble to hold the proverbial reins of power.

Trump, 70, has already questioned his 68-year-old rival’s physical and mental capabilities to become president. And she has retorted, with perhaps even greater justice, indicting his temperament for the job.

Clinton went on the late-night comedy show Jimmy Kimmel Live! in August to rubbish rumours about her health. “Back in October [2015], National Enquirer said I would be dead in six months,” she said. “So with every breath I take, it feels like a new lease on life.”

No wonder, given the wild speculation and huge risks to political capital involved, politicians have gone to incredible lengths to ensure any illnesses they might suffer remain private. Here are some examples.

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)

Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Ronald Reagan in 1984. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The two-term American president, who served from 1981 to 1989, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994. University of Arizona researchers found that subtle changes in speaking patterns linked to the onset of dementia were apparent years before doctors diagnosed his disease. “President Reagan showed a significant reduction in the number of unique words over time and a significant increase in conversational fillers and non-specific nouns,” wrote professors of speech and hearing science Visar Berisha and Julie Liss.

John F Kennedy (1917-1963)

JFK in 1962.
JFK in 1962. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

When JFK was elected US president in 1960, he seemed, at 43, healthy and vibrant. In reality, he suffered various problems controlled by doses of steroids and other drugs. Among those problems was Addison’s disease or autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type 2. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy’s adversaries claimed that he had the disease, but as the Los Angeles Times reports, a cunningly worded statement issued at the time by his doctors asserted that Kennedy did not have Addison’s disease caused by tuberculosis (which is the cause of the diseases in only 20% of sufferers). As a result of this statement, the matter was dropped. The truth was, though, that JFK did suffer from Addison’s disease, but in his case it was autoimmune in origin. The disease causes the adrenal glands (which produce adrenaline and other hormones) to wither and results in symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, muscle weakness, weight loss, difficulty standing up, nausea, sweating, and changes in mood and personality. Kennedy collapsed twice, once during a congressional visit to Britain, as a result of Addison’s disease.

JFK’s medical records, studied posthumously by navy doctor Lee R Mandel, revealed that the president was taking 500mg of vitamin C twice daily; 10mg of hydrocortisone daily; 2.5mg of prednisone twice daily; 10mg of methyltestosterone daily (to combat weight loss and gonadal atrophy associated with the steroids he was taking); 25mg of liothyronine (a synthetic thyroid hormone) twice daily; 0.1mg fludrocortisone daily; and diphenoxylate hydrochloride and atropine sulfate, two tablets as needed.

Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945)

FDR in 1924.
FDR in 1924. Photograph: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

In 1921, at the age of 38, Roosevelt suffered a severe attack of polio, which resulted in the total paralysis of both legs. The previous year he had run as vice-president on Democratic candidate James M Cox’s ticket. His illness seemed to threaten his future political career, but it did not. In 1928, he was elected governor of New York and in 1932 defeated Herbert Hoover to become president, in which office he served until his death in 1945 – becoming thereby the last president to serve more than two four-year terms in office. In 1944, hospital tests revealed that the president, a lifelong chain smoker, had high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease causing angina pectoris and congestive heart failure, but his declining health was hidden from the public. During the 1944 election campaign, his personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, told reporters what he must have known to be untrue, namely: “The president’s health is perfectly OK. There are absolutely no organic difficulties at all.” There are even claims that he used the office of censorship to quash reports of his declining health before the election, which he won – only to die the following year, shortly after experiencing a massive cerebral haemorrhage.

François Mitterrand (1916-1996)

Mitterrandin 1992.
Mitterrandin 1992. Photograph: Franck Perry/AFP

The French president died of prostate cancer in 1996, a year after the end of his two-term, 1981-95 presidency. During those long years in the Élysée Palace, he and his doctors concealed his condition from the French public. David Owen, in his book In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years, reveals the lengths they went to to conceal his condition.

When Mitterrand had to be given regular intravenous oestrogen hormone therapy, the president’s personal physician “hung the intravenous drip on a picture hook or a coat hanger so as not to have to hammer a nail into the wall of an embassy or another government’s guest house”.

Shortly before his death, Mitterrand had an intimate farewell supper with friends. Each diner was presented with a sizzling roasted ortolan, a sparrow-like bird the size of a lemon. He and his guests placed napkins over their heads. Then each bent over their dish, inhaled its delicate vapours, took the bird by its beak and sucked out the innards, including bones, through its rectum. In part because hunting the songbird was illegal in France, this supper – just like Mitterrand’s cancer – remained a secret until after his death.

Harold Wilson (1916-1995)

Wilson in 1971.
Wilson in 1971. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

During the British prime minister’s second term of office from 1974-76, he suffered symptoms that were later diagnosed as colon cancer. He may also have suffered from Alzheimer’s while in office (like Reagan). Neurologist Dr Peter Garrard analysed Wilson’s changing speech patterns at the dispatch box, just as he had those of novelist Iris Murdoch, and found evidence that the prime minister might well have been suffering from Alzheimer’s without knowing it. Garrard said: “Language is known to be vulnerable to the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and the findings of the earlier Iris Murdoch project confirmed that linguistic changes can appear even before the symptoms are recognised by either the patient or their closest associates.

“If such changes are apparent during the effortful and relatively controlled process of creative writing, then the cognitive demands of spontaneous speech production make it even more likely for them to be detectable in spoken output.” Garrard argued that such effortful cognitive demands may have prompted Wilson to retire from office.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Churchill in 1942.
Churchill in 1942. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

In his 1966 memoir, Churchill’s personal physician Charles Wilson, the first Baron Moran, revealed that “Black Dog” was the name Churchill gave to “the prolonged fits of depression from which he suffered”. The claim that Britain’s wartime leader was clinically depressed has ever since remained controversial, though Churchill acknowledged in his book Painting as a Pastime that he was prey to the “worry and mental overstrain [experienced] by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale”. To combat such worry and overstrain, Lord Moran reported, Churchill was prone to take solace in whisky and cigars, especially during the darkest days of the second world war. He suffered a heart attack at the White House in 1941 and contracted pneumonia a few years later.

During his second term as prime minister from 1951 to 1955, Churchill was, in the words of his biographer Roy Jenkins, “gloriously unfit for office”. Ageing and increasingly unwell, he often conducted business from his bedside. He had suffered a stroke while on holiday in 1949 and, while in office in 1953, suffered another. Despite being paralysed down one side and doctors fearing he might not survive the weekend, he conducted a cabinet meeting without, it is claimed, anyone noticing his indisposition. News of this stroke was kept from parliament and the public, who were told that he was suffering merely from exhaustion. He left office in 1955. A year after his retirement, he suffered another stroke.

Tony Blair (1953-)

Blair in 2004.
Blair in 2004. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

In 2004, the then prime minister was rushed to Hammersmith hospital in west London for emergency treatment after he complained of chest pains and an irregular heartbeat. The Guardian reported at the time: “No 10 immediately played down the incident, but the image of the youthful prime minister struck down by a heart condition sent shockwaves through the government.” He was found to be suffering from supraventricular tachycardia, and the following year was treated for a heart flutter. “It’s not particularly alarming but it’s something that you should get fixed – it’s a routine procedure,” he said later. “I’ve had it for the last couple of months and it’s not impeded me doing my work and feeling fine, but it is as well to get it done.” At the time, Blair placed a great deal of emphasis on being fit and healthy. He told interviewers that, at 51, he weighed about 83kg (13st), less than he did a decade before. In part, this was due to his healthy lifestyle – playing tennis regularly and insisting his aides ensure time for for workouts in his daily diary.

Gordon Brown (1951-)

Brown last year.
Brown last year. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

In 2009, on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning BBC TV show, prime minister Gordon Brown gave a detailed description of his difficulties with his eyesight. He lost the sight in one eye after a teenage rugby accident and has a retinal detachment in his other eye, leaving him with the “same fear” that he will completely lose his sight. He told Marr: “Although I have problems with my eyes and it has been very difficult over the years, I think people understand that you can do a job and you can work hard. And I think it would be a terrible indictment of our political system if you thought that because someone had this medical issue, they couldn’t do the job. I feel that I have done everything to show people that I can do the job even with the handicap that I’ve had as a result of a rugby injury.”

Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985)

Chernenko (centre) in 1984.
Chernenko (centre) in 1984. Photograph: TASS via Getty Images

The fifth general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was terminally ill when he took office in February 1984. He had started smoking aged nine and continued the habit as an adult, suffering emphysema and heart failure as a result. A year before he succeeded Yuri Andropov, he had been absent for three months because of bronchitis, pleurisy and pneumonia. Despite these seeming disqualifications for office, he still managed to serve – in name at least – as the leader of the Soviet Union for 13 months. In reality, from the end of 1984 until his collapse into a coma and death in March 1985, he rarely left Moscow’s heavily guarded Central Clinical hospital, and when he did, he only upset the Soviet people with his cadaverous TV appearances. Chernenko was the third Soviet leader to die during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, aged 73. “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?” the American reportedly remarked.

Fidel Castro (1926-)

Castro in 2004.
Castro in 2004. Photograph: Jose Goiti/AP

In 2006, the Cuban leader underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding. The then US president, George W Bush, was less than thrilled about the news of Castro’s recovery: “One day, the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away.” Castro retorted: “Now I understand why I survived Bush’s plans and the plans of other presidents who ordered my assassination: the good Lord protected me.” Instead of being taken down by American hitmen, Castro stood down in 2008, writing: “It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion, that I am not in a physical condition to offer.” To be fair, he was nearly 90. There has been much speculation since that Fidel suffers from diverticulitis, a digestive disease in which pouches within the large bowel wall become inflamed; Havana has not confirmed this. Quite possibly, Castro worries that Americans are still trying subtle techniques to kill him. In March, following Barack Obama’s Cuban visit, Castro wrote that the US president’s words were so sugary, he feared he was going to have a heart attack.

Theresa May (1956-)

May earlier this month.
May earlier this month. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

In 2012, the then home secretary went to see her doctor about a heavy cold because she feared that it could develop into bronchitis, as had happened to her husband. Instead, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which she manages with four insulin injections a day. “I would like the message to get across that it doesn’t change what you can do,” she told one interviewer.

“The fact is that you can still do whatever you want to do. For example, on holiday my husband and I do a lot of quite strenuous walking up mountains in Switzerland, and it doesn’t stop me doing it. I can still do things like that and can still do the job.”


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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