Just days before his expected nomination at the Republican National Convention, John McCain will celebrate his birthday. But don't bet on seeing a prime-time bash during the GOP's September get-together in Minneapolis: a presidential nominee blowing out 72 candles is not an image party bosses want to see on YouTube going into the fall battle.
Especially when that nominee visibly wears the toll of a long and, at times, extraordinarily difficult life. One that has included surviving a bone-crushing ejection from his Navy jet, torture during 5½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, major surgery to remove a dangerous skin cancer from his face, and the stiff and sometimes pained bearing shared by many of his contemporaries. If elected, McCain would steal Ronald Reagan's record as the oldest first-term president in the nation's history.
While questions of age and health have shadowed McCain, they have largely remained under the radar. His staffers respond to queries about his condition by pointing to the demanding campaign schedule he has maintained for many months. But with his doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., poised to release his current medical records before Memorial Day, and polls showing that a significant number of voters (32 percent in one survey) say that McCain is too old to be president, those back-burner issues are about to move front and center.
Top McCain aide Charlie Black says that the candidate's records will prove that he is in "good health." But their release is bound to reignite the debate over how much a candidate's age and health history should or could factor into the November contest, including how they may influence McCain's choice for vice president. And it will very likely renew discussion about the public's desire to know versus its right to know the full scope of nominees' medical conditions. The genie of disclosure will never be put back in the bottle, says Brian Balogh of the University of Virginia's Miller Center. When Thomas Eagleton's history of depression and electroshock therapy forced him to step down as Democrat George McGovern's running mate in 1972, "everyone became pretty self-conscious about candidates' past medical history," Balogh says. And post-Watergate, disclosure became de rigueur. "This was what the press demanded and what the American public expected and wanted to know about their presidential candidates," he says.
Presidential health. It wasn't always so. In the pantheon of presidents beset by maladies, deadly conditions, and some truly off-the-wall medical histories (Grover Cleveland had a cancerous lesion secretly removed from his jaw while in a chair lashed to the mast of a yacht plying the East River in New York),McCain's health trials don't look all that exceptional. Take Andrew Jackson, who suffered a head wound at age 13 during the Revolutionary War, was shot at least twice in gun battles, and carried in him at least three bullet fragments—one near his heart. It's most likely that Jackson suffered from malaria, lead poisoning, parasites, chronic diarrhea, depression, and was "swimming in heavy metals," notes H. W. Brands, a University of Texas historian, from the "cures" of mercury and a brew called "sugar of lead." (Family members, rather indiscreetly, also reported that as a youngster he "slobbered.") "In the early 19th to the early 20th century, people had a lot of things wrong with them, doctors didn't know how to fix them, and so they lived with them," Brands says. But Jackson lived to 78—at the time, a "good long life."
John Kennedy hid his diagnosis of debilitating Addison's disease—while in Congress, he had once been given last rites—and Chester Arthur kept secret his struggle with an incurable kidney disease. Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack and stroke while in office—"the public was told about all of this," presidential historian Henry Graff says—and Lyndon Johnson survived a massive heart attack before he became president and another while in the Oval Office. He died of a third after leaving office.
But the history of presidential health is marked by bigger lies, subterfuge, and what historians characterize as flat-out medical malpractice. The two most notorious, says Graff, involve the conspiracy between Woodrow Wilson's wife and his doctor to keep the president's strokes and in-office incapacitation a secret from Congress and the nation and a similar connivance to keep Franklin Roosevelt's life-threatening high blood pressure under wraps while he ran for his fourth term during what would be the final months of World War II. In both cases, Graff says, "the public was ill-served."