Could Hillary Run Despite a Health Issue? It Didn't Stop These Guys

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent concussion and hospitalization got the media buzzing about whether she'd be able to handle the stress of high office should she run for president in 2016. We asked Robert E. Gilbert, author of The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House, to walk us through some of the more notable presidential health issues--some of them highly secret--of administrations past. Plus: World leaders who hate taking sick days

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Hillary Clinton

"I think she'll live to be 120," said Bill Clinton about his wife's health during a recent interview. "I tell her she's still got time to have three more husbands after me," he joked. We can't peer into Hillary's political (or marital!) future, but here's a look back at some health crises faced by presidents and other world leaders.

Chip Somodevilla/Staff/Getty Images

Abraham Lincoln

Served from 1861 to 1865


Lincoln is one of several presidents who lost a child while in office. “Another of his children had died a couple of years before, but when Willie died it hit him really badly,” Gilbert says. “He was depressed, but he rose to the occasion and was one of the greatest presidents in history. So it’s hard to predict what the outcome of a tragedy for a president is going to be.”

Grover Cleveland

Served from 1885-1889 and 1893-1897


“At the beginning of his second term, Cleveland experienced pain one day while brushing his teeth," Gilbert says. There was a large growth on the roof of his mouth, which turned out to be cancer. Cleveland agreed to surgery but not in a hospital. His relationship with Congress was already strained, says Gilbert, and he didn't want anyone to know that he was ill. Instead, Cleveland underwent two surgeries on a yacht as it traveled up and down New York's East River. (The press was told that these were leisure trips.) "Doctors removed his upper jaw from the top of his mouth to the bottom of his eyes. It’s almost inconceivable that this could have been done on a boat that was rocking back and forth,” says Gilbert, adding the president was brought back on board two weeks later to be fitted with an artificial jaw. “Two weeks after that he delivered a speech to Congress and no one knew anything had changed . . . We never knew about it during his lifetime.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Served from 1933 to 1945


It was no secret that Roosevelt had contracted polio in 1921, when he was 39 years old. But the public didn’t know the extent to which it handicapped him. “When he gave campaign speeches he would describe himself as a recovered patient," says Gilbert. "But he hadn't recovered. He really did lose the use of his legs and was in a wheelchair.” Roosevelt's leg braces were painted black to blend in with his socks, says Gilbert, and he leaned on others when he needed to walk or stand.

Winston Churchill

Served as Britain's prime minister from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955


One of the most celebrated politicians in history, Churchill led the U.K. during World War II despite the depression he referred to as the "black dog."

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Served from 1953-1961


Eisenhower experienced a number of serious health issues, which were generally concealed, Gilbert says. Among them: a minor heart attack in 1953; a massive heart attack in 1955; ileitis surgery in 1956; and a stroke in 1957.


Photo credit: Dwight Eisenhower, Oleg Golovnev /

Dwight Eisenhower, Oleg Golovnev /

John F. Kennedy

Served from 1961-1963


Although Kennedy suffered from medical problems, such as Addison's disease, which caused him great pain throughout his life, he only missed one day of work while in office, says Gilbert: "Sometimes a president’s illnesses can have positive effects. Kennedy grew up in a household with a lot of children, and they were very competitive with each other, but he had a hard time keeping up because he was always sick." Soon after taking the oath of office, says Gilbert, Kennedy directed his surgeon general to set up a child health center to research childhood illnesses. "When he did it, he said, 'This is a matter of particular importance to me.' Because he always was sick as a kid.”



Photo credit: John F. Kennedy, StampGirl /

StampGirl /

Lyndon B. Johnson

Served from 1963–1969


“In 1955, Lyndon Johnson had a big heart attack, which he thought might kill him,” Gilbert says. “All the male members of his family had died before they were 60."  As president, he insituted programs to investigate heart problems. "One of the policy areas Johnson really pushed was health care, he said his goal was to make it possible for people to live to be more than 100 years old.” (Johnson died in 1973, at age 64, following a massive heart attack.)


Photo credit: Oleg Golovnev /

Oleg Golovnev /

Fran├žois Mitterrand

Served as president of France from 1981 to 1995


Mitterrand had prostate cancer during his presidency. He underwent two operations, in 1992 and 1994, but still served the longest term in French history.


Next: What's Next for Hillary Clinton

Plus: Hillary Clinton's Secret Weapon


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First Published Mon, 2013-01-14 14:57

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