When you think about it, we don’t ask for that much from our presidential candidates. Just the agelessness of Superman or Wonder Woman. The steel-clad sweat glands of the Terminator. And maybe the all-around athleticism of Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.
As you may have gathered from the most recent news cycles, though, we don’t exactly have the Clark Kent candidacy yet. On one side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton’s attempt to continue her campaign through a case of pneumonia drew alarmed coverage from journalists across the country. But there was plenty of criticism left for her opponent Donald Trump as he openly hesitated about releasing his own recent medical information, before eventually presenting the results of his latest physical on-air to Dr. Oz.
Now, on one level, I get it. The presidency is a highly stressful, demanding job. When you look at the before-and-after pictures, our typical Leader of the Free World looks like they’ve aged about 20 years overnight. And when both candidates are among the oldest to ever run for the position, it can be important to know whether they’re one good White House dinner away from saying “Your turn, Mr. Vice President.”
But I’m also not too surprised that a candidate would hold that information back. Or a president, for that matter. In a way, we all but demand it.
Simply put, we don’t do sickness very well.
The Christian writer Max Lucado once noted that if you ever want to stop a conversation cold, ask someone what they think about their impending death. We don’t want reminders. Not as a species. Not as a country. Entire industries are built on the premise that a person can always be young, beautiful, and healthy, a movie star on Main Street.
Illness? Worthy of sympathy, of course. But please, have the decency to get better soon so we can go back to our fantasy. As I’ve mentioned before, even the best-intentioned friend can begin to suffer “compassion fatigue” when continually exposed to the reality of a long-term physical condition.
So we build up an ideal. And to meet that ideal, our presidents lie.
It’s not a new thing, born of reality TV and the celebrity presidency. Franklin Roosevelt concealed the extent of his polio, attempting to “walk” with braces in public and never letting his wheelchair be photographed. Jack Kennedy publicly played rough-and-tumble football games with his brothers to hide his difficulties with back pain and Addison’s disease. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke that basically incapacitated him for the last year and a half of his presidency; the public was told he was suffering “nervous exhaustion.”
Never let ‘em see you suffer. Keep up the face at all costs.
Sometimes, of course, the face slips – and oh, boy, do we react. The elder George Bush famously tried to attend a state dinner despite an illness, and was roundly ridiculed when he threw up on the lap of the Japanese prime minister as a result. Even lesser reminders of physical imperfection become the stuff of late-night comedy – when Gerald Ford, a former college athlete, began suffering an extended attack of the clumsies, it pretty much launched the career of Chevy Chase.
And each moment with derision, we remind our presidential aspirants to build that wall a little higher.
I’m not saying presidential candidates should be dishonest. At this level, the information often needs to be out there. But some of the burden is on us, too. We need to be able to react without hysteria, without mockery, and with as much common sense and calm judgment as we can bring to the table. (A little sympathy might not hurt, either.)
Trying to pretend an illness isn’t there can make things worse. We all know that. But if we insist on the mask, we’ll get it.
And I guarantee, it won’t be hiding a superhero.