An Rx for politicians — full medical disclosure

It’s easy to forget how much our politics have been shaped by the vagaries of human health

John Fetterman is hardly the first politician to omit details about his health, Shapiro writes. Above, the Pennsylvania Senate candidate campaigns on May 10, days before suffering a stroke.  (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
John Fetterman is hardly the first politician to omit details about his health, Shapiro writes. Above, the Pennsylvania Senate candidate campaigns on May 10, days before suffering a stroke. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Posted May 25, 2022 at 6:00am

John Fetterman swept all 67 counties in Pennsylvania as he romped home in last week’s Democratic Senate primary. With his Republican opponent still unknown as Mehmet Oz and David McCormick are heading into what looks like an acrimonious recount, Fetterman would normally be poised to get an early jump in a pivotal open-seat Senate race. 

Except human frailty intervened. 

The 52-year-old Fetterman celebrated on primary night from a hospital bed, as he recovered from a recent stroke. Even though Fetterman was released from the hospital Sunday, there has been no word about when the Democratic nominee will resume campaigning or how vigorous he will be when he does. 

The New York Times, in an article by Gina Kolata and Katie Glueck, raised questions about Fetterman’s medical situation and the pace of his recovery. As the Times reported, “Specialists in stroke, heart disease and electrophysiology said that some of the campaign’s public statements do not offer a sufficient explanation for Mr. Fetterman’s described diagnosis or the treatment they say he has received.”

Hopefully, Fetterman will return to the campaign trail soon, undiminished by his medical adventures. But Democrats have to be worried after Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, told The Washington Post on Monday that she had taken away his cellphone so that he could concentrate on his recovery. 

Unlike cookie-cutter candidates from central casting, the 6-foot-8, amply tattooed Fetterman is selling his unorthodox blue-collar persona as much as specific issue positions. A memo released by the Fetterman campaign on Tuesday boasts, “John is an authentic, straight-talking, no-BS populist whose style defies conventional labels.”

But for that unconventional style to work politically, Fetterman needs to be seen in person, frequently, rather than just glimpsed in TV images shot before his stroke. In short, the Democrats’ chances of picking up the GOP-held seat and maybe maintaining their tenuous Senate majority depend as much on the candidate’s health as on the political mood of Pennsylvania voters. 

It is easy to forget how much our politics have been shaped by the vagaries of human health and mortality. 

Had Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived just four more months, Joe Biden would have appointed her successor on the Supreme Court and the 2022 campaign would not be pivoting around the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. The 2009 death of Ted Kennedy led to Republican Scott Brown winning his Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election, which jeopardized the passage of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Medical privacy is a cherished right, and it is understandable that men and women running for high office are reluctant to release their intimate medical histories. That may explain why the Fetterman campaign has been so elusive about the details of the candidate’s stroke.

The problem is that America has a long history of presidents and other top officials dissembling or even outright lying about their medical conditions. 

John F. Kennedy was a prime example, hiding from the public the heavy dosage of steroids he was taking to treat his Addison’s disease. As historian Robert Dallek wrote in The Atlantic, “The lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history — no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed.”

More recently, Bernie Sanders had a heart attack in October 2019, but all through the 2020 presidential primary season, the Vermont senator refused to release detailed medical records. 

Far more alarmingly, Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 three days before his first 2020 debate with Joe Biden — and covered it up. And then Trump, when he became sick, hid from the public that his blood oxygen levels had dropped so low that doctors were considering putting the president on a ventilator. 

The Senate, of course, served more as a rest home than a place of employment for South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who died at 100 after years of being clearly befuddled. And just last month, the San Francisco Chronicle portrayed 88-year-old Dianne Feinstein as prone to debilitating memory lapses when she is unable to follow a policy conversation or recognize longtime Democratic congressional colleagues. 

Making matters worse is that health — particularly mental health — has become weaponized in this down-and-dirty political era. 

Democrats with no psychological training were eager to claim that Trump suffered from narcissistic personality disorder based on the symptoms listed in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” 

Now Republicans, without offering a shred of medical evidence, routinely portray Biden as “senile.” In truth, Biden’s occasional verbal stumbles and overly blunt ad libs have been part of his political style for decades. 

Even before COVID-19, the health of our elected leaders was too important to be massaged and messaged by press aides more concerned with spin than full disclosure. This is particularly true at a time when the president, the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader were all born during World War II. 

Alas, it is nearly impossible to legislate medical honesty. Back in 2015, Trump’s doctor, Harold Bornstein, released an over-the-top letter claiming that the overweight reality TV star “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” It turns out (shocking revelation ahead) that Trump himself wrote the letter.

But the voters should demand full medical disclosure from candidates for major office — especially after a serious event like a stroke or heart attack. The health of the nation requires the full truth, even when the details are not what the doctor ordered.