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Glimpses from history on how did the U.S. operate when its leader was sick

Written by The Frontier Post

Monitoring Desk

A hidden stroke. A heart attack that was presented as indigestion. A “fishing trip” that was actually cancer surgery aboard a yacht in the Long Island Sound.

Donald Trump is not the first president to get sick in the White House. Conflicting reports have raised questions about the severity of his #COVID-19 illness. A look back in history shows that a few of his predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans, did what they could to make sure Americans didn’t know the full story about their medical conditions.

One thing a National Geographic and Morning Consult poll has found about the latest illness is that it is changing attitudes. Sixty-two percent of Americans questioned after Trump announced he has COVID-19 say they are more favorable toward people wearing a mask (a third didn’t know or weren’t more or less favorable on the issue). More Americans of all ages, demographics, and political persuasions reported wearing masks in public, the poll of 2,200 Americans found. (We’ll have more on this later today on NatGeo.com).

In the past, presidents feared what Americans thought about illnesses such as cancer or a leader perceived as physically weak. Grover Cleveland’s maritime cancer operation stayed secret for 24 years. Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, surreptitiously took on presidential tasks while the White House masked the crippling effects of her husband’s stroke. Dwight Eisenhower, pictured above after his 1955 heart attack that was initially presented as an upset stomach, was recovering from another emergency surgery when the Middle East exploded in the 1956 Suez crisis. In the last year of his life, Franklin D. Roosevelt had deteriorated so much that a shocked Vice President Harry S. Truman calculated the president wasn’t long for this world. FDR wasn’t.

“Whether they were unwilling to relinquish their power or didn’t want to be perceived as vulnerable, several presidents covered up their illnesses,” Amy McKeever and David Beard write in their survey of presidential sickness.

Even presidential death has been a mystery. Nearly a century later, historians are convinced doctors gave the wrong cause of death for Warren G. Harding. We’re still not sure what killed William Henry Harrison.

The Constitution offered little guidance on what to do if a president was still alive, but unavailable, even temporarily, to carry out his duties. Finally, in 1967, the 25th amendment was passed to create a mechanism to replace, temporarily, a president who has become incapacitated.

It’s only been used by two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who voluntarily (and briefly) turned over power during medical procedures. So far, there are no plans to use it now, administration officials told the Washington Post.

Courtesy: National Geographic

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