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Political Science Discussion: The President’s Privacy and the Public’s Right To Know

Political Science Discussion: The President’s Privacy and the Public’s Right To Know

Author: Svetla Ben-Itzhak, Ph.D., Kansas State University
Here’s a teaching approach for discussing privacy in Political Science courses. For teaching tips and questions that you can share with students, read on.
Teaching tip: Start with a question.
Question 1: Would you tell your friends or your employer if you were seriously ill?
Question 2: Should the President of the United States be notified of his or her serious illness to the American people?
It’s a strange job to be a president. The president of a democracy is the leader of the country. However, they are also an employee of the people.
Do presidents have the right to keep their own health problems private if they become ill? Or does the American people, the president’s employer, have the right?
Some believe that President Donald Trump is the most famous person to have said things that are clearly false. His administration has a long history in White House obfuscation when it comes to covering up President Donald Trump’s health problems.
Are presidents allowed to keep their own health problems private? Many presidents throughout American history have answered “YES!”
Here’s a list of American presidents that kept their health secrets from the public.
Teaching tip: Divide the class into smaller groups and have each student present a case where a president is hiding his health problems from the public.
James Madison
Madison did not disclose any details about his severe intestinal illness and fever that rendered him unable to perform his duties for nearly a month in 1813. His illness was so severe that he couldn’t even read written documents, including congressional Resolutions. Madison did write an urgent letter to Congress to inform them that he couldn’t see them and “nor can” fix a date when it would be in his power. However, he didn’t provide any details about his incapacitating illness.
Abraham Lincoln
During his tenure in office, President Lincoln was plagued by many ailments, including smallpox 1863. His illness was not disclosed due to the Civil War and other pressing issues he had to address at the time.
Grover Cleveland
Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his mouth. He had to have surgery in 1893. To keep his health problems secret, his close friends devised elaborate schemes.
Cleveland was secretly snuck into a yacht belonging to a friend to perform the surgery. The American public was informed that he had been on a fishing trip.
Six doctors were present on the boat, and all of them swore to secrecy. The doctors removed most of Cleveland’s upper left palate, five teeth, and a large portion of his upper right jaw in about 90 minutes. Cleveland was then fitted for a prosthetic device that would pop up into the top of his jaw.
His administration kept the media away from the surgery and kept them at a safe distance while he was recovering at his Cape Cod home. The wound took three weeks to heal. His assistants claimed that he had a bad tooth. This secret remained a secret for 24 years.
Franklin Roosevelt
FDR was not open about his health. He tried to hide his paralysis and the maladies that caused his fatal cerebral hemorhage.
He kept the fact that he used an electric wheelchair a secret for years and was largely able to get away with it. Secret service agents often confiscated photographs from photographers and seized their cameras, keeping the president’s wheelchair use under wraps.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Although he was the first president who opened up medical records, his administration went into hiding after he suffered a massive heart attack in September 1955. Instead, his doctors said that he had indigestion.
John F. Kennedy
Kennedy flatly denied that Addison’s Disease was something he had. This is a hormonal disorder that can cause fatigue and low blood pressure, as well as weight loss.
He took multiple medications per day while in the office. These included pain killers, stimulants and steroids. He was basically a walking pharmacy. His condition was kept secret by his doctors from the American public.
Ronald Reagan
His doctors understated the amount of blood loss after Reagan was shot in 1981. The White House released a photo of Reagan standing with Nancy Reagan. However, they cropped out a nurse who was holding a machine that connected to a chest tube. This tube came out of under Reagan’s robe. They didn’t reveal how close he was to death, as they didn’t want to make the president look like an invalid.
Question 3: Why are presidents so desperate to conceal their health problems?
As long as presidents are able to do their jobs, minor issues like a wheelchair or dental surgery may not be too big.
There are at least two options.

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