WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton’s doctor certified that she “is in excellent physical condition.” Donald Trump’s physician declared he would be the healthiest president — ever.
Testaments like these have become a ritual of American politics. But in the absence of detailed medical records, nobody seems to take them seriously.
The result has been a political vacuum in this year’s presidential campaign, one filled by speculation over what the nominees, two of the oldest in US history, might be hiding.
“Anyone who gets to be a nominee of either party has enough power, prestige, and persuasive ability to find a physician who will interpret results in their favor,” said Dr. David Blumenthal, president of the left-leaning Commonwealth Fund and author of a book on presidential health.
Fox host Sean Hannity has aired a series of segments casting doubt on Clinton’s health. On the other side, Democrats are questioning Trump’s mental health, with one congresswoman recently suggesting he should undergo a “mental fitness test.”
Dr. Marc Siegel, a Fox News contributor and New York University professor of medicine, is one of the people that Hannity has brought on his show. In an interview, he said that his push for disclosure isn’t politically motivated — “This isn’t some way that I’m trying to support Donald Trump, no way” — and that he wants to see the medical records of both nominees.
Both Trump’s and Clinton’s doctors released brief assessments of their health. Clinton’s two-page review included references to her ongoing issues with her thyroid and her 2012 concussion, the source of many of the theories about her well-being. Trump’s one-page letter mentioned that he took a daily dose of aspirin and had an appendectomy at age 10, while adding a Trumpian flourish: “His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.”
The letters, particularly Clinton’s, include roughly the same degree of detail as those released by Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. But some candidates have gone much further. In 2008, for example, Republican nominee John McCain released thousands of pages of medical records, in part to settle questions about the senator’s past bout with melanoma.
Siegel, who reviewed McCain’s records at the time, said he came to believe that that level of disclosure is important.
“I said at the time that the bar has been raised,” he said. “Now a precedent has been set for looking at the entire medical record of someone who’s around 70 and has a significant medical history.”
Siegel emphasized that his belief, based on the available evidence, is that Clinton is fit to be president. But without full disclosure, he said, rumors can run wild.
“You know what you end up doing if you don’t have that? You end up doing what’s going on now,” he said.
McCain followed another war veteran, Republican Bob Dole in 1996, in his transparency about his medical history. But recent candidates have largely stuck to a summary from their doctor.
The disclosure debate is a real one among academics. One side argues, like Siegel, that voters should be given as much information as possible. Some would even propose establishing an independent board to evaluate the candidates. The stakes are too high, from this point of view: Presidents are regularly asked to make life-and-death decisions.
The other side counters that nominees should get to decide how much private medical information they want to disclose. Voters should be trusted to make a judgment about what is disclosed and whether they’re bothered by what isn’t. You could also encourage candidates to hide health problems if they believe they will harm their political careers.
Not to mention, running for president is a serious health test all on its own.
“The presidential campaign is rigorous enough and public enough, if there’s anything seriously wrong with them, you’ll find out about it,” said George Annas, who is the director of the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at Boston University. “If there’s anything wrong, it’ll happen again and it’ll be on film.”
Then there is the question of whether voters would actually change their vote based on a candidate’s health.
Some experts who have tracked presidential medical issues aren’t so sure.
“A lot of people would rather have their man sick than the other person well,” said Robert Robins, professor emeritus of political science at Tulane University. “I suspect if they reveal everything there is to reveal … it’ll not be consequential to almost any person.”