There’s a long history of allegations and rumors about the health of presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton is the latest: Donald Trump’s campaign and other conservatives have insinuated — and in some cases outright claimed — that the Democratic nominee is concealing various health problems.
Here are some of the earlier episodes involving other candidates, dating back almost 50 years.
The political press in the 1960s was not quite what it is now, but during the 1968 campaign, the New York Times reported that Nixon’s relationship with a psychiatrist named Arnold Hutschnecker had “stirred speculation … about Nixon’s emotional stability.”
After Nixon had been elected, Hutschnecker said that he had treated Nixon when he was vice president but that rumors at the time — predating Nixon’s first run for the White House in 1960 — led them to end their doctor-patient relationship. It was later revealed that Hutschnecker visited Nixon twice during his presidency.
Reagan had to bat down speculation about his condition after a debate in October 1984. House Speaker Tip O’Neill and other congressional Democrats, along with some news commentators, alleged that the president appeared old and tired toward the end of the 90-minute debate, according to the New York Times.
”I think this time it shows again the same kind of desperate reaching for something that they did before,” Reagan told reporters, pointing out he’d faced questions about his health before.
The president’s physician also released a statement asserting that Reagan was in “excellent” health. He went on to beat Walter Mondale in a historic landslide that November.
Dukakis was the subject of a whisper campaign in August 1988 that eventually spiraled into a national news story. Rumors fermented by fringe groups alleged that the Democratic candidate had a history of depression.
Then President Ronald Reagan called the Massachusetts governor an “invalid” during a White House press conference, and speculation about his mental health was soon printed in major newspapers across the country. Dukakis was forced to release a new report from his physician asserting he was “in excellent health.”
Dukakis told STAT he thought the gossip hurt him in the campaign. He had been leading George H.W. Bush by 17 points in mid-July but fell behind in mid-August and never recovered.
“You don’t drop 8 points in a week for nothing,” Dukakis said in an interview.
In a bit of a twist, it was Clinton — not his 73-year-old opponent Bob Dole — who was under pressure to release his full medical records during the 1996 campaign.
Dole had already done so, in what was viewed as a proactive attempt to alleviate any concerns about his health as one of the oldest presidential nominees in history. The Republican nominee and his campaign then tried to turn the scrutiny back onto the 50-year-old incumbent president.
“Why won’t the president of the United States provide the American people with a full accounting of his medical history and records?” a Dole spokesperson asked the New York Times in August 1996. “After all, as Bill Clinton’s White House has proven time and again, partial disclosure is no disclosure at all.”
Dole himself helped stir the pot.
“I’ve released all of my health records. President Clinton has not. There’s got to be some reason,” he said during an interview with “60 Minutes.”
Conservative talk show hosts speculated that Clinton was hiding past drug use, according to reports at the time. But Clinton stuck with the physician letter that his campaign had already released and defeated Dole easily.
McCain, a war veteran like Dole, released more than 1,000 pages of medical records in May 2008 after he had won the Republican nomination to put to rest any lingering concerns about his past bouts with melanoma.
But Barack Obama supporters, with the aid of the Internet, helped keep the speculation alive into October, eventually prompting a Washington Post story on the persistent rumors.
According to the Post, a group of doctors who supported Obama were making their case in online videos, opinion columns, and newspapers ads. They alleged that McCain had a higher chance of cancer recurrence than his doctors had stated in his released records. The Post reported that an eight-page analysis by Wendy Epstein, a New York dermatologist, was circulating online.
“Voters need to know who is most likely to be running the country in 2010 if Senator McCain is elected in 2008,” Epstein wrote. Some of McCain’s critics put his odds of surviving for 10 years after his 2000 surgery to remove the melanoma at as low as 36 percent.
McCain’s campaign countered that his disclosure had been “certainly more significant than the one-page doctor’s note Obama released!”