How much information should the public know about a President's health? Should they know if they undergo major surgery? One American leader worked to keep his illness hidden from public view.
Matthew Alpeo in The President is a Sick Man explores a little known fact of American Presidential history. Soon after Grover Cleveland took the oath of office for the second time, he noticed a lesion in his mouth. Doctors who looked at it felt it should be removed as it would likely be cancerous. In 1893, cancer struck fear in everyone, and no one talked about it openly. Former President Ulysses S. Grant died of oral cancer so Cleveland wanted to keep his illness a secret.
The Panic of 1893 had settled over the country. Businesses and railroads were shutting their doors. Another problem swirled around whether gold or silver should back the currency of the United States. Many people were out of work. News of the President's health would only add to the sense of unease.
Cleveland's family doctor assembled a team of medical professionals to perform the surgery. They were sworn to secrecy. No one knew about the operation except one cabinet member. Vice-President Adlai Stevenson knew nothing. The surgery took place on a private yacht while it cruised Long Island Sound from New York to the Cleveland summer home on Cape Cod. It looked as if the President simply enjoyed a very slow, leisurely cruise at the start of his vacation.
No one knew what the President endured. After the surgery, he could hardly talk. He did not appear at any July Fourth celebrations just days after the procedure. When Cleveland got to his summer home, a press release stated that except for a little rheumatism, the President enjoyed excellent health. Reporters did not see or hear from him. Rumors about his health were rampant including one that he had had surgery for cancer. Those reports continued to be denied. For clarification, a press release related that the President had undergone some needed dental work while on the yacht, nothing more. The cabinet remained in the dark about the chief executive and the Vice-President left for a West Coast tour.
Some time after the President had recovered, a newspaper reported learned the true story from a doctor who helped with the operation. This account hit every newspaper in the nation. Once again, Cleveland's associates denied the surgery and claimed the President spent time resting from the strain and burdens of the Presidency. The reporters who broke the story became discredited.
Years after Cleveland's death, one of his surgeons revealed the truth about the President and his surgery to set the historical record straight. It came out into the open what had been a secret for many years. The newspaper reporter received his exoneration for his original article and had his reputation restored. Modern medical technology revealed that the tumor removed from Cleveland's mouth was a very rare form of cancer which does not spread. Since Cleveland, some Presidents have been more open about their medical histories while others have kept health secrets from the American public. No one however will likely go as far as Cleveland did at concealing surgery for a serious medical condition.
For anyone looking for an interesting read about the President, this would be a good choice. It shows a slice of American history at the end of the nineteenth century with the news media at that time. I enjoyed this fast read and recommend it highly.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.