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Presidential Illness, Past And Present — And The Downplaying Of It

President Donald J. Trump greets supporters during a drive by outside of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Bethesda, Md.
Tia Dufour
The White House via Flickr
President Donald J. Trump greets supporters during a drive-by outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday in Bethesda, Md.

President Donald Trump tweeted Monday morning that he was “feeling really good” and set to leave the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center by evening. He tested positive for COVID-19 last week, yet after being treated at the hospital, he wrote, “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

His downplaying of sickness and emphasis on good health is right on trend with what former U.S. presidents faced with illnesses tended to do, Peter Kastor noted on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“Throughout the history of the office of the presidency, presidents have consistently sought to convince people that they're healthy. … And very often, they go out of their way to hide the extent of their illness — and that has been the case from George Washington through Donald Trump,” he said.

Kastor, a professor and history department chair at Washington University, delved into relevant presidential history in conversation with host Sarah Fenske.

“Soon after he was elected, George Washington became sick. He had contracted an infection of some kind, and Americans were really, really worried. They said, ‘If this man dies, the experiment in republican government is doomed.’ And they felt entitled to know about his health condition,” Kastor said.

The perception of the commander in chief’s health has often been used as a metaphor to reflect the state of the country. And the need to know about a president’s health condition became more evident as the U.S. became involved in more international conflicts.

“This is partly a result of the Cold War,” Kastor said. “Americans assumed they needed to have a president who was there, who could govern at every instant, who could respond to every crisis — that somehow the U.S. couldn't respond to crisis if the president is not healthy.”

The media has also played a role in how much the public knows when it comes to a particular president's illness. Kastor said journalists mostly did not intrude on private matters of health in the first half of the 20th century.

“But more recently, they have come to conclude that they really should be covering this closely. Because the president's physical health, cognitive health, all of that, can affect a president's performance in office,” he added. “And I think that's the baseline: that Americans are entitled to know about the health of a president because it affects their capacity to do their jobs.”

Kastor also referenced the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, a period when journalists started monitoring presidential administrations more closely.

Both events "demonstrated that presidents would lie pretty aggressively,” the historian said. “[That] made journalists believe that they had both a right and a responsibility to investigate presidents more aggressively, and that they didn't have to defer to presidents. So [John F. Kennedy] was probably the last president who, for want of a better term, ‘got away with it.’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.