Regardless of who becomes the next president of the United States, that person can expect a lot of attention will be paid to the state of the president’s health. That’s why two recent books regarding presidential health matters should be read widely.
In “The President Is a Sick Man,” author Matthew Algeo documents a little-known chapter in American history: the secretive cancer surgery on a sitting president at a time of great economic stress across the country.
That’s what happened in July 1893, just five months after President Grover Cleveland took office. Presiding over what was then the worst economic downturn in American history, Cleveland didn’t want to upset the country further by disclosing a pressing health problem — a cancerous tumor in his palate that required aggressive surgery. To shield his treatment from the public, Cleveland boarded a yacht and essentially vanished for five days, undergoing the clandestine surgery at sea.
When an enterprising reporter attempted to let Americans know what happened, he was lambasted as a liar and a disgrace to American journalism.
We hope presidents are no longer able to shield such grave medical matters from public view. The president’s health and his medical treatment should be subject to public scrutiny.
Where secrecy thrives, accountability often withers, as Candice Millard reminds readers in “Destiny of the Republic,” a new book about the shooting of President James Garfield — and the botched medical treatment that sent him to an early grave. On July 2, 1881, only four months after taking office, Garfield was shot by troubled assailant Charles Guiteau. With better medical treatment, Garfield might have survived. But his doctors ignored the best medical wisdom of the day, giving the president an infection that killed him many weeks later.
Garfield’s death is a case study in what can happen when officials charged with a public trust avoid public scrutiny.
Reading Algeo’s and Millard’s books, the reader might feel inclined to comfort himself with the assurance that such things couldn’t happen in official Washington today.
But as history shows, the nation’s capital is full of officials who are endlessly inventive in trying to keep citizens in the dark.