Again, a couple weeks ago, Karl Rove gave an example of why he is a top opinion spokesman for the “stupid party” when he questioned whether Hillary Clinton has brain damage. As Jay Caruso advised then, let the media bring that up rather than let Hillary thrive as the supposed victim of an unfair attack from the Right.
As always, the controversy led to a discussion among some in the media over the issue of health and age in presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton, for example, in January 2016 would be almost as old as Ronald Reagan was when he took office in 1980. Reagan remains the oldest president.
But are the health and age of presidential candidates fair game? I would argue that the issue is overblown, but first let us keep something in mind: it isn’t going anywhere. Legitimate or not, the question will be used as a political bludgeon by any opponent who thinks it will serve him or her.
Ronald Reagan faced such queries from the media. As usual, his is an example for how a candidate ought to handle such situations.
Furthermore, fear of public reaction to poor health has caused many presidents to hide problems they faced. FDR largely kept his polio from the public eye. John F. Kennedy hid Addison’s disease. Chester A. Arthur had an incurable kidney disease that he never made public. On the other hand, the public was told when Dwight Eisenhower had a stroke and a heart attack in office. Lyndon Johnson also had one of his three heart attacks while president — one of his others was before he took office.
Back to the question’s legitimacy. The last president to die in office apart from assassination was FDR. That was 70 years ago and he was already into his fourth term. Had he been term limited like presidents today, he would have been out of office for five years before his death. Pre-Second World War, the death of a president in office was more common. Despite not literally implementing presidential succession as smoothly as has been done during the last three generations, the country survived. Indeed, the roughest transitions were unnatural deaths — something no vetting can predict.
Today, such transitions are smoother and medical technology is better. Death or debilitating illnesses are much less likely. In the case that the president cannot perform the duties of his office, his responsibilities pass to the vice president. Therefore, is seems more pertinent to consider the vice presidential candidate if the presidential candidate’s heath or age are in question.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s clerks wrote his opinions when he was incapacitated by his addiction to soap operas. Someone will take over if the worst happens. The question then is “who?’ That is a question of the candidate’s judgment – what kind of people does he surround himself with? But questions of judgment are already what campaign-time vetting of candidates should be for.
But what if the candidate literally has something wrong in his head? Lyndon Johnson was probably a psychopath. I don’t mean that as a partisan critique; even his adoring fan and previous employee Doris Kearns Goodwin includes some sanity-questioning stories in her biography of LBJ. National policy and America in general may have suffered from his impaired ability to connect reality with the world in his (egotistical) mind, but it likely would not have been much better coming from a clear-headed individual whose opinions were as radically left-wing as Johnson’s.
The issues of health and age are certainly legitimate, but in my opinion are often overemphasized. Regardless, that does not make them any less useful for candidates’ opposition. Don’t put too much stock in them, but don’t expect them to go away anytime soon.