Health Problems of Presidents and the Public’s Right to Know
By Paul Maloney
A popular television series about life in the White House is the NBC show “West Wing”, now being rebroadcast on Netflix. One of the main storylines of the series concerns fictional President Josiah Bartlett (portrayed by Martin Sheen) having Multiple Sclerosis and not sharing the illness with the public when running for office. This is certainly a television dramatic story but in the case President Grover Cleveland and many Presidents in our history, “art imitates life” when raising issues on whether a President has the right to withhold his or her medical history from the public.
There’s a long history of elected Presidents keeping health issues from the public. Author Matthew Algeo in the book, The President Is a Sick Man, Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth explores a time when Grover Cleveland hid a medical issue from the public.
As background, Algeo gives examples of other Presidents who hid their medical issues and histories from the public.
- George Washington hid his “influenza” from the public.
- In November, 1863, Abraham Lincoln had a version of “smallpox” which the public was unaware of.
- In 1882, Chester Arthur suffered from “Bright’s Disease” while in office, (chronic nephritis) and died two years later from complications.
- Woodrow Wilson’s strokes between 1886 to 1906 were not known to the public. His massive stroke in 1919 is well known in history but details were kept from the public, cabinet and Vice President Thomas Marshall. Secretly, First Lady Edith Wilson oversaw the duties of her husband’s presidency. Without President Wilson’s guidance and influence, the Treaty of Versailles was rejected by the Senate.
Franklin D. Roosevelt spent many decades keeping his “polio” or “infantile paralysis” from the public. Documentary Filmmaker Ken Burns in The Roosevelts, An Intimate History describes a very elaborate “deception” about FDR’s diagnosis of his illness in 1921 to his death in 1945.
Some points from the Burns Documentary include the following.
- FDR’s emotional struggles not being stopped by a “childhood disease”.
- Details on steel braces when standing.
- Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in keeping her husband’s name in the news by speaking to various groups.
- Struggles with rehabilitation and attempts with recovery.
- Theories that Roosevelt’s better connection to people in need.
- Importance of psychological optimism when dealing with an illness.
- Public “appearances” to show FDR can walk on his own and keeping the press from photographing or filming FDR from the waist down.
- Eleanor Roosevelt being FDR’s “legs” during his time as NY Governor and Presidency.
In regard to Grover Cleveland, the Algeo source and the White House Historical Association discuss how in July 1893, President Cleveland had a cancerous tumor (carcinoma) in his jaw. In early August of that year, the tumor was removed on a friend’s yacht, the “Oneida” while it was on the Long Island Sound. Cleveland’s cabinet, Cleveland’s Vice President Adlai Stevenson, the press, and the American public believed the President was heading to Gray Gables, Cleveland’s “Summer White House” in Cape Cod.
At the time, there was a financial depression. To solve the country’s economic problems, there were debates in Congress about saving the Silver Purchase Act. Cleveland backed the “gold standard”. There was a desire by Cleveland to hide his health issues so there would no financial panic in a difficult economy.
With rumors of Cleveland with poor health, E.J. Edwards from the Philadelphia Press wrote a story about the operation on August 29th. Although Edwards made mention of Cleveland’s courage to be operated on, Cleveland’s staff denied the story and Edwards’ reputation was discredited. However by 1917, the full story of the operation was published in the Saturday Evening Post with an interview of one of the doctors present for the procedure.
In the case of Cleveland, FDR, Wilson, or the other Presidents, is it acceptable to keep the health issues of a President confidential or is it the right of the American Public to know? Would knowledge of Cleveland’s operation have affected economic confidence of the time? Did Edith Wilson act responsibly by not revealing the extent of her husband’s stroke? Would Franklin Roosevelt been elected New York Governor or U.S. President if the public was aware he was bound to a wheelchair? Was Franklin Roosevelt a better President because his polio made him more empathetic with those suffering during the Great Depression and World War II?
There are many questions here with what we may look for with our presidential candidates today. It is hoped that the Grover Cleveland Birthplace and the life and presidency can be a springboard for discussing the relevance of candidate health issues and other issues in our present day life.
- Algeo, Matthew. The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth. Chicago Review Press, 2011.
- Burns, Ken, director. The Roosevelts, An Intimate History PBS.
- Facebook posting on August 2, 2017 (untitled) from the White House Historical Association
For Additional Reading:
- Algeo, Matthew. “A Yacht, A Mustache: How A President Hid His Tumor.” NPR, NPR, 6 July 2011,
- “Grover Cleveland – Secret Surgery.” Health Sciences Library, ahsl.arizona.edu/about/exhibits/presidents/cleveland.
- Knutson, Lawrence L. Away from the White House: Presidential Escapes, Retreats, and Vacations. White House Historical Assoc., 2014.
- “Two American Presidents’ Different Cancers.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 1985,