Saturday, May 17, 2014

Health and the Presidency

The bulk of this post was written before Karl Rove made several idiotic comments relating to Hillary Clinton's health.

Today would have been the 97th birthday of John F. Kennedy. Even if JFK had not been stolen from us, he would almost certainly not have lived to our era. He suffered from a genetic defect (probably Autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type II – also known as Schmidt’s syndrome) which decimated his immune system and adrenal glands (Addison’s disease), and caused a plethora of other maladies – leaving him subject to every bug that came along, and chronically deprived of energy. Kennedy was also born with one leg shorter than the other – the root cause of his back pain, which was exacerbated by a football injury, a war injury, medications he took for his Addison’s disease, and two steel rods which were inserted in 1954 to shore up his spine. He was given Last Rites three times during the course of his short life. The host of medications necessary to keep him functional - including Cortizone (both oral and injected), Lomotil, Peregoric, Phenobarbital, Testosterone, Trasentine, Tuinal, and various amphetamines – would keep your local pharmacist in business. Needless to say, very little of this information was shared with the American people during Kennedy’s lifetime. Just as most Americans of FDR’s time thought the 32nd President had mostly recovered from polio and merely walked with a limp, JFK’s contemporaries thought he was in fine health, save for back pain he suffered as the result of war injuries.

I share this information to make two points:

1). Historically, a President’s physical health has had almost no impact on job performance. Consider our leaders who faced serious illness while in office: Grover Cleveland (cancer), Franklin Roosevelt (paralysis, heart failure), Eisenhower (heart attack, stroke, ileitis), and Kennedy. Now consider those who were physically healthy: Herbert Hoover, Jerry Ford, George W. Bush

2). Whatever the defects in JFK’s character, and they were considerable, he was still a great and heroic man. It would have been the easiest thing for JFK to live the life of a charming invalid; coasting on his father’s success and money, and taking a meaningless desk job. No one would have questioned if this sick young man chose to languish in quiet insignificance. Instead, Kennedy pursued what Theodore Roosevelt (another sick young man who willed himself into action) called “the vigorous life”. During World War II, Kennedy pulled strings to get into the Navy despite physical issues that disqualified him, and became a genuine hero when his ship was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. As President, he projected an image of youth and vigor that was in contrast to his sad medical reality. President Kennedy inspired a generation to national service, fought for civil rights, skillfully negotiated a peaceful settlement to the Cuban Missile Crisis, encouraged the arts & culture, and set man on a course for the moon. Can anyone imagine what would have become of the United States, the world, if Richard Nixon - a physically healthy but mentally and emotionally unstable man – had been elected in 1960?

Our nation is better off for having had JFK’s leadership – and worse off because he left us far too soon.

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