3 Questions on Hillary Clinton’s Health and Age

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/politicalpulse/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/politicalpulse/

It’s hardly the first time that Hillary Clinton’s health and age have come up as stumbling blocks to her election, which is saying something since she hasn’t announced a definitive intent to run as of yet and the subject is already a recycled debate. That isn’t likely to stop Republicans from questioning her ability when all the chips are really on the table, though. In 2012 she suffered blood clot issues near her brain, leading many in the opposition to question her health, possible brain damage — the works. Karl Rove, GOP strategist, was particularly forward about his concerns. “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that,” said Rove at a conference, according to the New York Post.

Of course, he later explained that a concussion is defined as a traumatic brain injury, pointing out for himself just how much terminology and phrasing matter, according to Fox. His phrasing may have been technically correct, if a little dramatic, but his facts in regards to her hospital stay were dead wrong. She was hospitalized for three days, not 30. While he insisted later that he’d never used the term “brain damage,” he still said he was right to question how the event influenced her, even if he didn’t really question her health overall. “Look, she had a serious health episode. And I don’t know about you, but if you go through a serious health episode, it causes you to look at life a little bit differently. This was a serious deal,” he said according to the New York Post.

Of course, Rove sparked a storm of responses from the left in Clinton’s defense, including doctors and her own husband, though Republicans are still insisting that she’ll eventually need to release a birth certificate — I mean, medical reports. “First, they said she faked her concussion and now they say she is auditioning for her part on The Walking Dead,” said Bill Clinton, according to ABC. “I must be in really tough shape because she is still quicker than I am.” Clinton was referring to Ambassador John Bolton suggesting that Mrs. Clinton was avoiding the Benghazi hearing by feigning illness at the time of the occurrence, a conversation that also took place on Fox News.

The whole mess poses some interesting questions and comparisons to really break down the health and age matter stressed by the GOP over the last few months. Shouldn’t Benghazi be the bigger deal? What about other president’s health and age? Is this likely to turn into a viable strategy for Clinton’s opposition?

Shouldn’t Benghazi be the bigger deal?

The answer is, of course, yes — a resounding yes. Proof of ability — or lack thereof — in a political office is always more salient to an election than any sort of personal matters that get drudged up. It’s very rarely the tactical approach on either side of the aisle though. Plenty of Democrats would argue that Benghazi should be a closed book as well and that further investigations are only being insisted upon for political reasons. However, in terms of what matters deserving closer scrutiny, American deaths overseas while Clinton was U.S. Secretary of State easily takes the cake over her age and a two-year-old concussion she got from fainting due to dehydration. Nothing says the GOP can’t attack on both fronts, of course. “Four Americans died at the hands of terrorists nearly 20 months ago, and we are still missing answers, accountability, and justice,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio.)

What about other presidents and presidential hopefuls?

Hillary Clinton is hardly the first potential candidate to get flack for her age and health, as Republicans are quick to defend themselves. “I don’t think there’s a graceful way to bring up age, health, and fitness for a candidate who wants to be president of the United States,” said Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus to NBC News. It was fair game for Ronald Reagan. It was fair game for John McCain,” he said. Of course, both McCain and Reagan were older than Clinton is now, as Reagan took office at 69 and McCain ran for election in 2008 at age 72 — but Clinton will have tied Reagan at 69 when 2016 rolls around. “If she gets elected two terms, she’ll be 77,” said Rove to Fox. Reagan was the oldest of our presidents, with the overall average age being 55, and the youngest being our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, at 42.

It’s notable that Reagan suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, something rumored to have possibly started during the later years of his presidency. Additionally, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention puts the age of onset for most Alzheimer sufferers at 60, with the risk factor doubling at 65 and continuing to double every five years after that. Aging is changing, though — as is Alzheimer disease and its treatment.

As for other health concerns, the list of diseases and presidential patients is very long. According to Rutgers, George Washington had nine fatal diseases, Franklin Pierce had depression, Grover Cleveland had surgery in secret in Long Island, and Woodrow Wilson had a stroke which left much of his work to his wife. These are earlier examples of course, back when health in the U.S. was quite different. Comparing the average health of Americans in George Washington’s time to today is practically pointless. Moving to more recent years, Lyndon B. Johnson had gall bladder surgery, George W. Bush passed out (while consuming a pretzel, according to Rutgers), and Dwight E. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act from the hospital.

How various presidents have dealt with health concerns and diseases is perhaps more interesting. Some have demanded privacy, or carefully hidden the illness. Eisenhower had Crohn’s disease which was, for a time, hidden from the public. Kennedy had adrenal problems, according to Rutgers, which were actually related to Addison’s Disease — never openly admitted by his administration. On the other hand, as Rove pointed out, “We had Dick Cheney … when he had a heart defibrillator put in, what happened? He put out his three doctors to talk endlessly about what was gonna happen, what had happened, how his recovery was gonna be. She would have been better served having done that,” said Rove on Fox. Either the public is getting more nosy, or more realistically, technology and media is changing how closely we follow our national leadership in every detail. Either way, Republicans feel perfectly comfortable insisting on health documents from Clinton and discussing her physical capability, and she’s hardly the first to see such scrutiny.

Is this a viable strategy for Clinton’s opposition?

Whether Clinton does or does not release medical records, it seems likely that this probably not going to be the defining barrier to her election run should she decide to go for it. At the beginning of March, Pew Research asked respondents how old they thought Clinton was, finding that as a whole, “the public tends to underestimate Hillary Clinton’s age.” About 83 percent put her at 65 or younger, only 2 percent guess 66 years old, and 12 percent think she’s 67 or older. In general, her polling numbers look highly promising, with her biggest negative in the polls Benghazi.

I don’t think it was helpful for a political operative, as opposed to journalists, to begin this whole story,” said Peggy Noonan, columnist for The Wall Street Journal to ABC’s This Week. “But I also think, in a funny way, this will work for Mrs. Clinton’s benefit after all. She’s got a book tour coming up in June that means these topics will come up then, when she’s selling the book, when she’s doing network specials, when she’s feeling fresh and perky and can knock it back with prepared lines, so I think its fine. But sure, it’s an early move on 2016.”

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