TIME

The Sketchy History of Presidential Health Letters

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Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images Hillary Clinton arrives at Piedmont Triad International Airport on Sept. 15, 2016 in Greensboro, NC.

Vick is a TIME correspondent based in New York

Trust us, say the doctors who write letters assuring the voting public that their candidate-patients are hale and hearty. “She continues to remain healthy and fit to serve as President of the United States,” Hillary Clinton’s physician, Lisa Bardack, M.D., wrote, in a two-page missive that the Democrat’s campaign posted online Wednesday, three days after the candidate collapsed into a waiting van, her diagnosis of pneumonia still a secret.

“In summary, Mr. Trump is in excellent physical health,” Harold N. Bornstein, M.D., wrote in a letter of his own, which the Republican nominee released on Thursday. Bornstein’s new note, complete with cholesterol levels and body weight, was more restrained than the four paragraphs the hirsute Manhattan physician had hastily banged out on Dec. 4: “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” Bornstein wrote in that one, begun, “to whom it my [sic] concern.”

There’s no reason to doubt either of the doctors as individuals, of course. But their timing is lousy. They are issuing their assurances in the shadow of a history of deception laid out in devastating detail by the journalist Joseph Lelyveld in His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. The book, published Sept. 5, offers a compellingly nuanced, almost day-by-day account of the great man’s final year of life, which he spent juggling command of World War II, the creation of a post-war world order and the question of who should succeed him, should he live to run for a fourth term. FDR was at death’s door 11 months before he actually expired—though neither the public nor any members of his family knew it because of the extraordinary duplicity of his personal physician, Ross McIntire.

An ear, nose and throat specialist and U.S. Navy officer, McIntire always insisted the president was in “robust health.” Anyone close enough to see Roosevelt’s ashen face in early 1944 knew otherwise, of course. When FDR’s daughter Anna finally got her father to Bethesda Naval Hospital that March, a top cardiologist detected a heart so diseased it had grown “enormous” and shifted inside the chest. The cardiologist, Howard Bruenn, later recalled the president’s condition as “shocking” and “god awful.” He asked McIntire for the his patient’s medical records, but never got them, and after FDR’s death the records disappeared from the hospital safe—almost surely destroyed by McIntire, notes Lelyveld.

Less than an hour after the examination, Roosevelt was back at the White House facing reporters in his weekly press conference. He told them he was dealing with “lingering bronchitis,” and the conventions of the day prevented anyone from challenging him, even in print. The only expert permitted to speak was his physician. “As always, Admiral McIntire smothered legitimate questions with a bland sauce of folksy reassurance.”

The incumbent would live another 11 months, finally perishing from an aneurysm while visiting Warm Springs, Georgia, where his father had extended his life by taking the waters. By then, the president’s blood pressure had been dangerously high for years, a condition diagnosed long before congestive heart failure. Both were kept secret by his personal physician, whom Lelyveld, a former editor of the New York Times, pillories relentlessly and by all appearances justifiably. FDR clearly valued McIntire for his political sense as much as his medical abilities; he received steady promotions, from lieutenant commander when he entered the White House, to vice-admiral. But he was no servant of the people, even after his boss’s death. McIntire’s 1946 memoir, White House Physician, concludes Lelyveld, was “remarkable for its false leads and contradictions.”

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