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Presidential Health No Longer a Secret?

Cover-ups of Presidential Ailments Were Once Commonplace, but Experts Say That Could Be Changing

Why the Secrecy?

Why have past administrations chosen to conceal presidential ailments? Cynics might say the presidents' advisors simply wanted to run the show, but Post believes the answer is more complex. No one knows how news of a serious presidential illness might impact the economy, global relations, or other critical issues. The thought of an ailing president is "threatening."

The result, Post says, is that political considerations have often trumped medical reality in proclaiming the commander in chief fit for office.

A New Era

Post and Sabato agree it's inappropriate and increasingly difficult to deceive the public about a president's health. There is evidence that recent administrations have been more transparent in this area -- for example, by releasing detailed summaries of the president's annual physicals. (See sidebar, "What's in a President's Physical?")

"In this era of investigative journalism and blogs, there has been a fundamental change," Post says. Presidential health has come under the microscope as "a matter of legitimate public interest."

The same applies to the health of presidential candidates, Sabato says. Medical information is available for voters to consider. "It's very important in the case of [Republican front-runner] John McCain. He would be the oldest president in American history, and he's already had a bout with skin cancer. So his vice presidential candidate will get even more scrutiny than usual."

Mitigating McCain's age, Sabato says, is the fact that the senator's mother is "lively" at age 95.

Sabato says he's unaware of any major medical problems among the Democratic front-runners.

For all the candidates, he adds, the campaign itself is a kind of medical test. "Most people see them on the campaign trail and see this remarkable expense of energy. The public's view is that anyone who can go through this obstacle course of a nominating process must be vigorous enough for the job."

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