Decoding the US election: Candidates' health matters - until it doesn't

4:50 pm on 13 September 2016

Opinion - Overheating and dehydration were the initial explanation, followed up by the news that two days previously she had been diagnosed with pneumonia - the 'old man's friend', the old man in this case being Donald Trump.

What amazes me more than anything else in this story is how anyone with pneumonia (68 years old or otherwise) managed to sustain Hillary Clinton's recent campaign schedule, let alone stand in the heat for 90 minutes. It's really no wonder she collapsed.

Donald Trump, left, and Hillary Clinton - with a heart monitor graph in the centre

US presidential candidates' health has often drawn attention, throughout the country's history. Is this year's race an exception or just following the rule? Photo: AFP / 123RF

Demonstrating he is now much better managed, Mr Trump stayed silent - beyond offering sympathy. Ideally, he would be able to release his full medical records to demonstrate his relative health and virility. He will instead report on a single recent check-up, so there are probably things in his medical history that an ageing narcissist would rather keep opaque.

Regardless, it will be a step up from his earlier doctor's note, which read like Mr Trump had penned it himself: "astonishingly excellent", "healthiest person ever elected", and charmingly "… a medical examination which showed only positive results", which suggested that he was found to suffer from every condition they tested him for.

Mrs Clinton had already released a slightly fuller medical rundown but will now be forced to increase the detail. For an intensely private person this will rankle, but it is now necessary.

Frailty, thy name is…

There has been much discussion as to whether any of this is fair. Is Mrs Clinton being held to higher standards as a woman? Yes and no.

Yes, because this plays nicely into a 'weaker sex' narrative, which is why the rumours about her health were a tactic anyway.

Yes, because some voters genuinely believe only men are strong enough and mentally tough enough to be the boss. But this event also plays into the 'secretive Hillary is hiding things from you' narrative, which sounds more like 'I'm worried that a strong woman will be scary', rather than 'I'm worried that a weak woman will be ineffectual'.

Either way, it is still a legitimate story. One of these two candidates is going to be the oldest president ever inaugurated. If elected, President Trump would be older at his inauguration than any president has been at their retirement, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, a man whose dementia in office is one reason the public are legitimately cautious of age.

Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the September 11 Commemoration Ceremony in New York City.

Hillary Clinton arrives at the September 11 Commemoration Ceremony in New York City. Photo: AFP

And they worry about men's age too. Bob Dole was 73 during his campaign (Mr Trump is 70, Mrs Clinton 68), and his perceived elderly frailty was a problem for him. When he fell off a platform because a railing collapsed under him, it wasn't the railing that took the blame.

Regardless of age, health has always been an election issue and, for that reason, candidates always project the rosiest possible image. Journalists complaining they weren't informed earlier that Mrs Clinton had pneumonia are being naïve or don't know their history.

A history of malady

It's not random that the better-looking, taller candidate with more hair and a deeper voice tends to get elected. On some subconscious level, voters appear to choose the alpha gorilla to lead the troop. Being healthy is part of that nebulous demand that candidates look presidential.

Richard Nixon was hospitalised for two weeks during the 1960 campaign, which was hard to hide. A staph infection was one of the things that led to his disastrous debate performance against John F Kennedy, who had been quietly hospitalised twice during the same campaign.

In fact, JFK was hospitalised 36 times in his life, and received the last rites three times. Public knowledge of his frail health might have swung the close election, but the public perceived him as young, fit and energetic.

Abraham Lincoln was portrayed as a virile outdoorsman despite being bookish and having debilitating depression. Franklyn D Roosevelt required a wheelchair for most of his adult life but managed to keep it a secret from the public, whom he believed would perceive it as a sign of weakness. Notably, his opponents must have known, but never used it against him.

These things matter to the electorate, except when they don't.

The 2000 Missouri election is a perverse example that sometimes health just doesn't factor. Democrat Mel Carnahan was challenging incumbent Republican senator John Ashcroft, and muddling along in a nasty campaign until three weeks before election day when his plane crashed.

It was too late to change the ballot and no-one even knew who would serve in his place if he won. Mr Ashcroft paused his campaign, unsure who to attack or how to position himself. Mr Carnahan's numbers climbed as his wife called on voters to keep his vision alive.

In the end, the dead man won by the skin of his teeth. His wife served in his place. Mr Ashcroft became George Bush's Attorney-General.

The liveliest dead stretch

Usually, this is the campaign dead stretch. Seven weeks since the conventions, eight weeks until the election. Almost anything will do as a lead, usually.

Around now Bill Clinton lost his voice and John Kerry went windsurfing, big stories both. The equivalent this week was the Bloomberg revelation that the Mexican peso is moving in inverse to Mr Trump's campaign; the better he does, the more it falls.

This year that kind of story sinks without trace under the mass of revelations, intrigues and outrages. Last week at a town hall event, Mr Trump said nine separate things, in just 24 minutes, any one of which would have been an apocalyptic gaff in most campaigns.

Mrs Clinton made her "basket of deplorables" statement, which has been called a gaff but was probably a carefully considered (and sadly, statistically plausible) ploy to make moderates second-guess their bed-mates.

And then those stories too were subsumed under a media frenzy about health.

If this pace keeps up, the journalists covering this campaign will get so overheated they will also need a lie-down.

Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs