US presidents throughout history have kept illnesses hidden

The White House shared little – or confusing – information about President Trump's COVID-19 illness. Historically, other U.S. presidents have done likewise. 

Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House/AP
President Donald Trump works in a conference room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Oct. 3, 2020, after testing positive for COVID-19.

Throughout American history, an uncomfortable truth has been evident: Presidents have lied about their health.

In some cases, the issues were minor, in others quite grave. And sometimes it took decades for the public to learn the truth.

Now President Donald Trump has been diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease. The White House initially said he had “mild symptoms." By Friday evening, he was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. After a rosy press conference by the president's medical team, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said Saturday that Mr. Trump had gone through a “very concerning” period Friday and that the next 48 hours would be critical in terms of his care. On Sunday, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley acknowledged that he had tried to present an overly optimistic description of the president’s condition on Saturday.

“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude of the team, that the president, that his course of illness has had. Didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction,” Dr. Conley said. “And in doing so, came off like we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true. The fact of the matter is that he’s doing really well.”

Pandemics have dogged the presidencies of both Mr. Trump and Woodrow Wilson. Each played down the viruses that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Both presidents got sick – and each had to decide how much to tell the public.

Like many administrations before, Wilson's White House tried to keep his sickness secret.

He was at talks in Paris on ending World War I when he fell ill in April 1919. His symptoms were so severe and surfaced so suddenly that his personal physician, Cary Grayson, thought he had been poisoned. After a fitful night caring for Wilson, Grayson wrote a letter back to Washington to inform the White House that the president was very sick.

Flash forward 100 years. In a tweet at 12:54 a.m. Friday, Trump told the world that he and first lady Melania Trump had contracted COVID-19.

The White House initially shared few details about his condition. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said he was taken to Walter Reed many hours later “out of an abundance of caution.”

However sick he was or wasn't, his COVID-19 was startling since Trump had been declaring almost daily that the nation had turned the corner on the disease, which has killed 209,000 people in the United States.

Trump has said he has played down the pandemic so as not to create panic, but there were political reasons for doing so. Seeking another four years in office, Trump did not want the U.S. economy to tank before the Nov. 3 election.

“The Wilson administration, for a very different reason, completely downplayed the pandemic,” said John Barry, an adjunct professor in public health at Tulane University whose book “The Great Influenza” chronicles the 1918-19 pandemic that sickened Wilson and killed 675,000 Americans. “Wilson was concerned that any negative news about anything would detract from the war effort – decrease the energy that people would put into winning the war. In this case, there are more strictly political benefits.”

William Howell, professor of American politics at the University of Chicago, wonders how transparent the White House will be about Trump’s case of COVID-19.

“He is obviously going to be eager to get back onto the campaign trail," Mr. Howell said. "He has all kinds of incentives to signal strength and to get back into the mix. He’s going to want to.”

But he added: “This is a president who’s been less than straightforward over the course of his presidency about all manner of factual issues. And so, is he to be believed is a good cause of real concern.”

He said the pathology of COVID-19 and the virus in 1918 are "very similar, and that’s a little scary.”

History is replete with examples of how presidents have kept the American public in the dark about their ailments and medical conditions.

President Grover Cleveland, fearing poor health would be a political weakness, underwent secret oral surgery late at night in a private yacht in Long Island Sound.

President Lyndon B. Johnson secretly underwent surgery for removal of a skin lesion on his hand in 1967.

After leading the nation through a decade of war and depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed early in 1944 as suffering from high blood pressure, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure and acute bronchitis. Roosevelt was put on a low-salt diet and ordered to cut down on smoking. But with an election coming on, Mr. Roosevelt and the White House staff issued a statement saying the problem was far less serious.

“The stories that he’s in bad health are understandable enough around election time, but they are not true,” his doctor told a reporter. Historians now believe his doctors concealed all the facts from their patient and the public.

Mr. Roosevelt won reelection. Only months later, on April 12, 1945, he died.

According to historian Robert Dallek, President John F. Kennedy suffered more pain and illness than most people knew and took as many as eight medications a day, including painkillers, stimulants, sleeping pills and hormones to keep him alive. Mr. Dallek, who wrote a biography on Kennedy, examined medical files from the last eight years of Mr. Kennedy’s life before Mr. Kennedy was assassinated.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, while vacationing in Colorado. He was hospitalized for six weeks. Instead of advising Mr. Eisenhower not to run for a second term, his doctor recommended that more time in office would aid his recovery.

In 1841, William Henry Harrison became ill with what doctors thought was pneumonia caused by cold weather during his inauguration, where he rode horseback sans topcoat. The White House did not tell the public that Mr. Harrison was sick. Mr. Harrison died just nine days after becoming ill and only one month after taking the oath of office.

After pools of reporters began to cover nearly every moment that a president is in public, it became harder for commanders-in-chief to keep their medical conditions private.

The first known instance of a so-called pool reporter inside the White House was in 1881 when James A. Garfield was shot. As he lay in bed, Associated Press reporter Franklin Trusdell sat outside the president's sick room, listening to him breathe and sharing updates with other correspondents.

“I listen for every sound,” Mr. Trusdell wrote to his wife in a note about his overnight Garfield watch at the White House. “A dog barking in the distance is heard. A fountain splashes on the lawn. Not a step is heard in the mansion. The president sleeps.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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