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Hillary Clinton’s recent illness raises the old question: How healthy do our top leaders need to be?

One doesn’t need to be a physician to have seen that the secretary of state has not appeared exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed of late.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaving New York Presbyterian Hospital with her daughter, Chelsea, on Jan. 2.
REUTERS/Joshua Lott

It may have surprised many people last month when it was revealed that the seemingly indefatigable Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suffered from a dehydrating stomach virus that caused her to faint and then sustain a concussion (and in receiving treatment for the concussion, a blood clot near her brain was discovered). I’m not among those people.

Mary Stanik

Mary Stanik

(I also don’t think it was possible for Clinton to feign the fainting, concussion and blood clot because she might have been unwilling to testify before Congress regarding the massacre at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.)

One doesn’t need to be a physician (and I’m not, though I was a spokesperson for years for the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center) to have seen that Clinton has not appeared exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed of late.  She looks to have gained a significant amount of weight since 2008. She seems pale, tired, and yes, aged. She’s said that she would like to know again what it’s like to not be tired.

Clinton is back at work this week, but her illness again raises the question of just how healthy must our leaders be in order to serve, and, conversely, how much illness and/or infirmity can we accept among those who occupy the nation’s highest posts. And for those who hope the 65-year-old Clinton will run for president in 2016, her stay in sick bay also has people talking about how old is too old to be president.

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In the days before television (and certainly before 24-hour news and the Internet’s continuous feeds from blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), presidential vim and vigor was not a great consideration.  Abraham Lincoln worked to end slavery and brought the country through the Civil War.  But would his purported clinical depression and clumsy gait (with that gait now said by University of Minnesota researchers to possibly have been caused by a genetic mutation that results in a degenerative neurological disorder known as spinocerebellar ataxia type 5) have stopped his presidential hopes as soon as he did not walk jauntily through a cornfield while campaigning in the Iowa caucuses? Franklin Roosevelt guided the nation through the Great Depression and just about all of World War II while using leg braces and a wheelchair. And with severe hypertension that contributed to his rather early (by modern standards) death at age 63, a disorder which probably could be treated rather easily today. Would Americans give someone like Roosevelt, who also was often seen with a cigarette and was known to just love daily martinis, a chance today?

‘Young’ doesn’t correlate to best

We’ve had presidents — including Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush — who were relatively vigorous and “young” (which I’ll define as being less than 65 when they vacated the presidency) who are nevertheless marked with enormously questionable records and legacies.

At age 65, Dwight Eisenhower had a serious heart attack, at a time when there was nowhere near the arsenal of methods available today to treat heart disease. All the same, he was elected to a second term the year after and lived another 14 years. Ronald Reagan was 17 days short of his 70th birthday when he was inaugurated for the first time. He was fit enough to survive an assassination attempt just two months later, even though many think the Alzheimer’s disease he was formally diagnosed with some five years after leaving office had begun to make its presence known during his time as president.

Then there’s Jack Kennedy. Even though he was thought to be one of the nation’s brightest lights, more than many people thought he was too young at 43 to become president. And although he was the youngest person ever elected president and was the man who put the “vigah” into appearing vigorous, Kennedy was plagued with a number of serious ailments, only a few of which were known to Americans at the time of his election. They included Addison’s disease and a back so painful that he always wore a back brace, nearly always used crutches when photographers were not present, and regularly submitted to amphetamines and powerful anesthetics to quell his pain. Not to mention stratospheric cholesterol levels (which might be controlled by medication today), stomach disorders, and a history of sexually transmitted diseases. His administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis likely will be debated for years but the fact remains that both conventional war (with the Soviet Union at least) and nuclear annihilation was averted. Even with a very bad back.

So while I wish Secretary Clinton continuing recovery and hope her blood clot and concussion will not prove to be problematic in the future, I wonder how and if we will resolve the matter of questioning the health and age of presidents and presidential candidates, all while we mostly accept the physical and mental beatings the presidency inflicts upon those who hold the office.

I don’t have the best solution, but maybe we should mull over something Benjamin Franklin once said:  Nothing is more fatal to health than an over care of it.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.


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