John F. Kennedy was a sick man, but hardly anyone knew it, since the late president kept his health problems a secret (and lied about having Addison’s disease, biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote). Tom Eagleton was dropped as the running mate of 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern after it was revealed that Eagleton had received electroshock treatments for depression a dozen years earlier.
Democratic presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas insisted during his 1992 primary campaign that he was cancer-free after undergoing a bone marrow transplant in 1986, even referring the media to his doctors for endorsement. Months after he ended his campaign, Tsongas acknowledged that he had been treated in 1987 for a recurrence of lymphoma. The former Massachusetts senator died in 1997 from complications that arose after other cancer treatments weakened his immunity.
Fast forward to recent campaigns, and candidates and elected officials are under immense pressure from the media and the public to disclose their health status. Some have gotten into possibly unimportant details. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, revealed her weight (129 pounds on her 5-foot-8 frame) when she ran for president in 2020. Others, like former President Donald Trump, have been less forthcoming: Trump’s doctor released a statement in 2015 with few details about Trump’s health status, but said Trump “will be the healthiest person ever elected to the presidency.”
But how much do voters have a right to know about the candidates’ health? And where does the security of a candidate’s ability to do physically and mentally strenuous work conflict with the right to privacy that Americans expect when it comes to their own medical records?
In that case, medical and political experts say, the rules are different for public officials.
“My personal opinion is that once you choose to become a public figure, you automatically lose your right to privacy, especially if your decisions may affect the livelihood of thousands of people,” said Dr. Salvatore Mangione, an associate professor of medicine at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, says in an email. “Hence the need for transparency.”
That issue now haunts a Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, as Democratic candidate John Fetterman seeks to explain how his May stroke wouldn’t impede his ability to serve the Keystone state in the Senate, and why he waited so long to reveal more details. about his recovery. .
In the past, a serious illness might have derailed a campaign or raised questions about whether a lawmaker should stay in office. It hasn’t been like that in recent times. Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont suffered a heart attack during his 2020 campaign and stayed in the race. Rep. Debbie Wassermann-Schultz of Florida and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, both Democrats, have been outspoken about his treatment for breast cancer.
And several senators, including two currently serving in the House, have experienced exactly what Fetterman suffered in May: a stroke.
But Fetterman’s case is more complicated, analysts say. He reported his stroke days after canceling campaign events for undisclosed health reasons, posting a video on social media of him and his wife, Gisele, discussing the event. His discussion of his general health, including an admission that he rarely went to the doctor when he should have, reinforced his Everyman campaign message, even as his Republican opponent, cardiothoracic surgeon Mehmet Oz, ran not-so-subtle ads showing him jogging.
Fetterman kept his campaign going strong for months, mostly trolling Oz on Twitter, finally starting campaigning at public rallies and events in August. On Wednesday alone, Fetterman posted an update from his doctor, Clifford Chen, on how his recovery is progressing.
Fetterman’s reticence is “one of the main reasons Oz has closed the gap in the polls,” says G. Terry Madonna, a veteran Pennsylvania pollster who is now a senior fellow at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
In general, “people have a feeling that secrecy has been used and abused rather than privacy” when it comes to candidates’ health, says Vanderbilt University professor of history and political science, Thomas Schwartz.
Chen’s letter said that Fetterman has “an auditory processing disorder that may appear to be hard of hearing,” but that he has no “cognitive deficits.”
And it’s the “cognitive” part that threatens to hurt Fetterman’s chances in what has become a close Senate race. Fetterman has openly discussed his use of a monitor to understand what is being said to him more efficiently. He plans to use that monitor when he debates Oz on Tuesday.
On the one hand, it is not very attractive for a candidate to use a device to process questions. But disability activists have countered that such a view is unfair: there are members of Congress who use wheelchairs, for example.
“Someone who has a disability is not necessarily unhealthy. They can be blind and be in excellent health or use a wheelchair and be in excellent health,” says Richard Scotch, a professor of sociology, public policy and political economy at the University of Texas. in Dallas, who is past president of the Society for Disability Studies and has held other positions in disability-related organizations.
But “I would distinguish between disabilities that interfere with, perhaps, some life activities, like climbing stairs or reading text, (and) disabilities that can be interpreted as affecting someone’s cognitive well-being or emotional well-being,” Scotch says. .
Even if Fetterman’s need for a monitor doesn’t reflect his ability to understand things, people might perceive him that way, he says.
The Oz campaign, which had been constantly pressing Fetterman to reveal more detailed information about his post-stroke health, said it is “good news” that Fetterman’s doctor “has given him a clean bill of health.” But that’s all the more reason Fetterman should agree to extend next week’s debate to 90 minutes, says Oz communications adviser Rachel Tripp.
“Now that he’s apparently healthy, he can debate for 90 minutes, start taking questions live from voters and reporters, and do a second debate now, too,” Tripp says in an email response to questions.
In the end, Fetterman’s political diagnosis is more likely to be dictated by politics than medicine, experts say.
“It’s going to be influenced by the kind of opinion you had of [Fetterman] For starters,” says Scotch. “People who favor their opponents may be more inclined to use his stroke recovery as a reason to badmouth him,” while Fetterman fans will see the candidate as a brave survivor of a major disease, he adds. .
The disease, in the Pennsylvania race, may be in the eye of the beholder.