A History of Presidents Hiding Health Problems since Grover Cleveland

President Grover Cleveland recovering from surgery / Library of Congress, Public Domain

How U.S. presidents and their administrations have handled information about presidential health problems.

By Dr. David E. Clementson
Assistant Professor
Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Georgia

At a press briefing in 1893, President Grover Cleveland’s secretary of war told inquiring journalists that their speculations about the president having surgery were wrong.

The nation was in a recession, and Cleveland feared that his economic plan would be doomed if the public knew that his doctor thought he could have cancer. Cleveland had surgery secretly on a yacht, the tumor was removed, but the nation continued spiraling into an economic depression.

During President William McKinley’s second term in office, which began in 1901, his health plummeted. He had eye trouble. He was bedridden with the flu. And he was near death from pneumonia. Yet his spokesman tamped down media speculation, telling journalists that reports of the president being ill were “foolish stories.”

When Woodrow Wilson became gravely ill from syphilis, his spokesman issued press statements that the president was recovering from fatigue.

For the entirety of his service to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Press Secretary Stephen Early tried to hide the president’s paralysis caused by polio by having the press snap photos of the president in ways that hid his wheelchair. Even after FDR died, Early released a statement that “the president was given a thorough examination by seven or eight physicians” and “he was pronounced organically sound in every way.”

Dwight Eisenhower was hospitalized with a heart attack, but his press operation initially told reporters he had an upset stomach.

An unusual photo of FDR in a wheelchair – his press secretary tried to avoid images of the president in his wheelchair. / Margaret Suckley/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

There is even precedent for presidential staffers lying about their own health.

William Howard Taft’s press spokesman, Archie Butt, was sickened from stress and fatigue. He flew to Rome to escape and get rested. Rather than admit that he was exhausted – which would seem reasonable for a person working in such a high-stress position – he told the press corps that his trip was to meet with the pope.

Sometimes presidents lie about medical conditions to distract from other, non-health issues. When John F. Kennedy was holding secret meetings dealing with the Soviet Union and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Press Secretary Pierre Salinger told reporters that the president’s schedule changes and lack of public appearances were due to a cold. He even released the president’s symptoms and temperature.

Perhaps proving that he wasn’t talented at deception, Salinger used the same cold excuse to explain Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s impromptu flight from Hawaii to the White House at the same time. The Washington Post’s editor suspected the colds were awfully coincidental, but Salinger refused to comment.

As the political public relations adage goes: The cover-up is worse than the crime.

Nixon was noticeably sweaty and pale during these debates – showing illness but not president until well after this. / Library of Congress, Public Domain

It is worth noting that in the most famous televised debate in U.S. history, the Sept. 26, 1960, Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon showdown – after which many voters said they decided to vote for Kennedy – Nixon was ill and unrested. Nixon had been in the hospital a couple of weeks earlier and looked a little gaunt from having recently lost five pounds.

Nixon had been campaigning intensely and did not prepare for the debate. He held a campaign event that morning with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and never met with his staff and didn’t even take their calls. Meanwhile, Kennedy had been fiercely preparing with his advisers at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Chicago.

Originally published by The Conversation, 10.02.2020, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution/No derivatives license.