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Some presidents' health problems were shielded from public

The Orange County Register

In the spring of 1920, it seemed to dawn on President Woodrow Wilson that his debilitating stroke months earlier had not only hurt him politically. It had also harmed the country.

He confided in his close friend, the White House physician, Cary T. Grayson:

"My personal pride must not be allowed to stand in the way of my duty to the country. ... If I am only half-efficient I should turn the office over to the vice president. If it is going to take much time for me to recover my health and strength, the country cannot afford to wait for me."

The doctor talked him out of it.

"Grayson is really taking the lead in the cover-up here" while acting in accordance with first lady Edith Wilson's wishes, says Patricia O'Toole, a biographer who also teaches nonfiction in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. O'Toole, who in 2005 published "When Trumpets Call," about Theodore Roosevelt's years after the presidency, is working on a book about Wilson.

Wilson's illness is the most remarkable example in American history of the public being kept in the dark about a president's health troubles.

As letters, oral histories and Grayson's own diary showed, there was a concerted effort among the doctor, Edith Wilson and a few others in the president's inner circle to minimize the severity of his condition.

The nation's 28th president was having trouble persuading his political enemies in the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the document that ended World War I. A two-thirds majority vote was needed to approve the treaty, which also provided for the creation of the League of Nations. To drum up public support, Wilson embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the country. Three weeks into the tour, on Sept. 25, 1919, in Pueblo, Colo., Wilson collapsed from exhaustion.

The train sped back to Washington, but on Oct. 2, Wilson was stricken by a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side. For days he could not move. Eventually, he recovered some ability to walk, but he was debilitated for the final 17 months of his presidency. Wilson's secretary (what we would today call the chief of staff), Joseph P. Tumulty, and Wilson's Cabinet, ran a sort of "holding pattern" presidency, O'Toole said.

In those days it was possible for a public figure to stay on the sidelines for months on end without it causing much concern.

"There was a question of what's in good taste and what's not in good taste, what would be reckless speculation," O'Toole said. "There was a great deal more circumspection about commenting and guessing in that time than there is in ours. People don't need a single fact now to go off on a tirade."

Edith Wilson is sometimes called the first female president, because she shielded her husband from most visitors. Any request had to go through her.

"The word went down that if you had a question for the president, you had to write it up briefly, and it had to be a question that could be answered with a yes or a no," O'Toole said.

Wilson's inability to passionately argue on behalf of the Treaty of Versailles doomed it. After 14 "reservations" were loaded onto it, it failed approval in the Senate in November 1919.

"There was important stuff, quite in addition to the fight over the Treaty of Versailles, that needed to be taken care of that just wasn't taken care of" between Wilson's stroke and the end of his second term, in March 1921, O'Toole said. He died Feb. 3, 1924, at 67, from complications related to his stroke and heart problems.

Here are other examples of undisclosed, or undiagnosed, illnesses of presidents -- and one running mate:

Abraham Lincoln: What friends and observers simply described as "melancholy," we know now are the classic symptoms of depression, from which Lincoln suffered most of his life, even before the Civil War and the deaths of two of his sons. Lincoln "often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry," Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of the 2006 book "Lincoln's Melancholy," wrote in The Atlantic in 2005. "He told jokes and stories at odd times -- he needed the laughs, he said, for his survival. As a young man he talked more than once of suicide, and as he grew older he said he saw the world as hard and grim, full of misery, made that way by fate and the forces of God." There are different degrees of depression, however, and clearly Lincoln was able to carry out his duties during the nation's darkest period.

Grover Cleveland: According to a 2011 post on by Maureen Salamon titled "The Hidden Illnesses of Presidents," Cleveland discovered a lesion on the left side of his palate "that was said to be cancerous." This was in the middle of the 1893 financial panic. "As Americans waited for him to create economic stability, the president had the tumor clandestinely removed while sailing on the yacht Oneida to his summer home. The crew was sworn to secrecy."

Franklin D. Roosevelt: During FDR's 12-year presidency, the media helped him and White House officials hide his polio-induced paralysis by photographing him only from the waist up.

John F. Kennedy: Kennedy had a variety of health problems, including debilitating back pain and Addison's disease, which caused physical weakness and jaundiced skin. JFK took as many as 12 pills at a time.

Tom Eagleton: The running mate of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972 was a respected senator from Missouri. But he hid from McGovern's people that, in the 1960s, he had been treated for depression and underwent shock therapy. Rumors among the media circulated, however, and Eagleton acknowledged his treatment during a news conference July 25. After initially backing Eagleton, McGovern asked him to step down. Eagleton was the vice presidential nominee for 18 days. McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide, but Eagleton was re-elected easily to the Senate in 1974.

Ronald Reagan: After John Hinckley's failed assassination attempt on Reagan in March 1981, the White House, and the media, didn't want to project a sense of confusion or weakness. So the president was portrayed as bouncing back right away. He went home from the hospital after 13 days, but it actually took him about seven months to fully recover. Reagan, who was 17 days shy of his 78th birthday when he left office in January 1989, sometimes had trouble remembering names and other details while in office, but his doctors maintained that he was not impaired. Reagan announced in 1994 he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He died 10 years ago, on June 5, 2004.

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