Much like the pandemic itself, the response to Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis would land as poorly written dystopian satire if it didn’t feel inevitable. The president has done all he can to downplay his illness, while the White House is already selling commemorative tat in anticipation of him getting better.
Yet while some people believe there’s something uniquely Stalinist in the possibility that we’re being misled about the president’s health, this is far from an isolated incident.
Ronald Reagan, apart from spending most of his second term in what Gore Vidal once memorably called the “springtime of his senescence”, was far closer to death following an attempted assassination in 1981 than the public ever knew.
Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 and was paralysed down his left side for the remainder of his presidency; he, with the help of his wife Edith, went to great lengths to hide the extent of his illness.
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According to medical historian Howard Markel, Edith “embarked on a bedside government that essentially excluded Wilson’s staff, the Cabinet and the Congress”. During meetings they tried to hide the extent of his paralysis by keeping his left side covered with a blanket.
But the most egregious example of this phenomenon must be John F Kennedy, who had an absolute fruit salad of maladies, and a drug regimen to match (information that didn’t come out until decades after his presidency).
As chronicled by biographer Richard Reeves, JFK took injections of Novocain into his back up to six times a day:
Kennedy was not shy about medication. He was used to it, practiced at self-prescription and self-injection. The corticosteroid injections and time-release capsules implanted in his thigh every three months to treat Addison’s disease kept him alive and functioning one day at a time. At lunchtime every day he also took pills of the same substance, desoxycorticosterone acetate, called DOCA.
Bottom line? Don’t expect the current administration to be particularly forthcoming about Trump’s condition any time soon.