The cover of this week’s National Enquirer announced that the publication was in possession of “Hillary’s Full Medical File,” showing her supposed history of “Three Strokes, Alzheimer’s, Liver Damage from Booze,” and, just for good measure, “Violent Rages.” The Enquirer had apparently done up an ashen-faced photo of Clinton to make her look like a ghostly opossum. In tone (screeching panic) and substance (scattershot assemblage of dire medical conditions), the Enquirer’s take was a lot like the right-wing conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health that had been gaining traction this summer; that tone and substance made them easy to dismiss, as I did a couple of weeks ago. The Enquirer is a fitting vehicle for Clinton-health hysteria—Donald Trump has singled it out as one of the only media sources he finds credible (he wondered recently why it hadn’t won a Pulitzer), and its editors took time off from covering celebrity autopsies and what it claimed was the Obama family’s cocaine-crazed lifestyle to endorse Trump this spring.
Then came Clinton’s now-notorious stumble and near collapse as she left a 9/11 commemoration, early on Sunday. The video of that incident is disturbing: Clinton is walking, heavily supported, toward a waiting van, looking as though she can barely stand, when she wobbles and lurches forward. For those of us who hadn’t seen anything alarming in the earlier videos that had convinced conspiracy theorists she was hiding a grave illness, it was especially worrisome; it could make you feel like a patsy for believing the Clinton campaign’s assurances that, despite the bother of seasonal allergies, and a persistent cough, she was in excellent health.
And then, as more information trickled out, it again seemed reasonable to be reassured, at least on the medical front. Clinton’s underlying health wasn’t really the problem here; the problem was hiding something that didn’t need to be hidden. Clinton’s doctor, Lisa Bardack, had diagnosed her with pneumonia on Friday morning, prescribed antibiotics, and advised her to “rest and modify her schedule.” Clinton decided she would limit this information to her innermost circle and power through with her scheduled campaign appearances, as she explained in a phone interview with Anderson Cooper on Monday. But pneumonia can make you feel light-headed and woozy, especially on a relatively warm day, when you’re standing up for a while, and Clinton apparently got faint and tried to make a low-key exit. Her campaign released a statement later that day saying she had gone to her daughter Chelsea’s apartment for an hour, had some water and Gatorade, and played with her grandkids; she emerged waving and proclaiming the beauty of the day in New York.
Pneumonia comes in more and less severe forms, and so the diagnosis isn’t necessarily all that worrying in itself. Clinton is being treated with antibiotics, which are generally highly effective against the bacterial form of the illness. At this point, we don’t have any reason to believe that her pneumonia is indicative of an underlying condition, and it hasn’t yet led to any complications. In short, it doesn’t compare with, for instance, John McCain’s history of malignant melanoma, Dick Cheney’s multiple heart attacks, or J.F.K.’s cavalcade of medical ordeals, including Addison’s disease. It’s more on a par with (though arguably less embarrassing than) George H. W. Bush’s vomiting at a state dinner in Japan. As Jen Gunter, a doctor who blogs about medical and political matters, wrote this week, “Cries for information about Clinton’s health imply there is some kind of new health standard for President, like there is for a pilot’s license.” It might be different if predicting a risk of sudden death were a simpler task. But as Gunter notes, “Studies tell us more likely or less likely, they don’t predict. It’s medicine, not divination.”
So why, oh why, didn’t Clinton just explain that she had pneumonia and was taking a day or two to rest and recover? Presumably, she figured it would be savvier to keep it quiet, given all the rumor-mongering about her frailty that Trump and his allies had been engaging in. She hadn’t planned on nearly fainting or on somebody managing to record it when she did. But the video of her stumbling toward that van was much scarier in the absence of the information that she was suffering from an illness for which she was being treated. And the first explanation proffered—that she was “overheated”—sounded manifestly incomplete and a little fishy. None of this would matter so much if it didn’t comport with one of the signal weaknesses of Clinton as a candidate: her armored quality, her aversion to unscripted encounters with the press, her knee-jerk preference not to disclose when disclosing would save her so much grief in the long run. That made it harder to buy into a positive view of the whole incident as, say, a manifestation of her toughness.
Clinton is a creature of her history—and her history has been one of unrelenting scrutiny, some of it completely warranted (her ties to Wall Street, her relationship with the Clinton Foundation, her initial support for the invasion of Iraq), some of it petty and sexist (her hair, her laugh, her suits, her legs), and some of it off-the-wall (conspiracy theories about the suicide of her former law partner Vince Foster). Thanks to her husband’s infidelity and his opponents’ eagerness to pounce, she endured one of the more painful public humiliations of recent political history. We’ve been watching her so closely for such a long time now. Her communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, tweeted this week that “the public knows more about HRC than any nominee in history.” In some ways, Hillary Clinton is a prisoner of that knowledge—always hoping, it seems, that we knew a little less.
Source: The Newyorker