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McConnell’s Bid to Downplay Freezes Undermined by History of Politicians Lying About Their Health

7 minute read

After Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze during a press conference this month, the Kentucky Republican’s second such episode this summer, his office released a note from the Capitol physician intended to calm those worried about his ability to continue at his job.

Dr. Brian Monahan told McConnell in the letter that there was “no evidence that you have a seizure disorder or that you experienced a stroke, TIA or movement disorder such as Parkinson’s disease." Monahan suggested the episodes may be related to the Leader’s concussion in March or to dehydration. 

The diagnosis has done little to quell concerns about McConell, who has insisted he will not resign before his term expires in 2026. Sen. Rand Paul, another Kentucky Republican who has practiced medicine as an eye doctor, told reporters last week he didn’t think Monahan provided “a valid medical diagnosis.” “Everybody’s seen the clips,” he said. “It’s not a valid medical diagnosis for people to say that’s dehydration.”

Medical professionals put their reputation on the line when they publicly reveal diagnostic information about a patient. But it isn’t unprecedented for a politician’s doctor to paint an overly rosy picture of a patient’s health. Historically, numerous doctors have knowingly misled or even lied to the public when it came to their powerful patients. 

“They disguise their lying, in a sense, by the word ‘confidentiality,’ that the public is not entitled to know a patient's medical history,” says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who has suggested Congress pass a law requiring more transparency about presidents’ health. “If I called up your doctor, they're not going to tell me what your health is.”

Former President Donald Trump misled the public more than once about his health. In 2015, as a presidential candidate, he released a letter from Dr. Harold Bornstein, his longtime personal doctor, that stated, "If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Later, the doctor claimed that Trump had dictated the letter to him. 

Questions about the validity of statements about Trump’s health escalated in the fall of 2020, when he was hospitalized after he tested positive for COVID-19. That October, his physician at the time, Dr. Sean Conley, declined to provide many details about his patient’s health and suggested Trump was not experiencing serious respiratory problems. When asked if Trump had received supplemental oxygen, Conley dodged the question, saying he was not then on oxygen. Days later, he revealed Trump had previously received oxygen. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction, and in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true,” Conley said. 

Despite upbeat contemporaneous statements from Conley and other members of Trump’s team, reports months later revealed that the president’s condition had actually been so bad that there was talk of putting him on a ventilator. 

It’s not surprising that politicians would try to obscure health problems from the public, says Dallek. “They want the public to believe that they are sturdy, reliable, coherent, and that they are going to serve the public in local, state, and national interests, and that their health in no way compromises them.”

Trump’s doctors were not the first to conceal aspects of a president’s health. Perhaps the most famous case happened in 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson collapsed while touring the country by train. Wilson was rushed back to the White House, where the details of his health were kept secret. A week later, the president had a debilitating stroke. While Wilson’s wife made statements on his behalf, his physician and friend, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, refused to sign a statement of disability and insisted that the president’s mind was clear and active. Grayson had been less than forthcoming about Wilson’s condition before; records released nearly a century later revealed a secret nasal operation related to the president’s breathing and an urgent trip to the eye doctor that Grayson hoped the press would interpret as routine. 

The American public was similarly kept in the dark two decades later by Ross McIntire, who, with Grayson’s recommendation, became physician to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Roosevelt’s third term, as his health appeared to be declining, McIntire said that he was in “robust health.” Even after the president was diagnosed with severe hypertension and congestive heart failure in March 1944, McIntire insisted to the press that Roosevelt’s health was “excellent in all respects” and that “all the checks are well within normal limits.” Weeks before the election that year, Roosevelt himself told reporters he was in “pretty good health.” He died less than six months later. 

“Roosevelt, when he ran again in 1944, was really at death's door,” Dallek says. “The attitude was, that as long as the war was on, the public wasn't going to want to change presidents in the middle of the war, but he should have stepped down.”

Physicians exhibited a similar, if less persistent, lack of candor when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981. The medical spokesperson for George Washington University Hospital, where Reagan was treated, initially downplayed how serious his condition was, denying early reporting about how close to the president’s heart the bullet had lodged.  Weeks later, the doctor who operated on him said the bullet was found less than an inch from his heart.The spokesperson later admitted to providing "a little bit less than complete information,” saying, "I tried to be as upbeat as possible without damaging my credibility.”

Concerns about a candidate’s health can become a dominant issue in an election. It’s why President Joe Biden’s age looms so largely in the minds of voters when asked about his plan to run for re-election. 

Perhaps most infamously, Senator Thomas Eagleton withdrew himself as Democrat George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, after revelations of his past treatment for mental illness, including electroshock therapy, came to light. McGovern later said he regretted booting Eagleton off the ticket.

Eagleton’s case continues to haunt politicians as they weigh how much to disclose to the public. As he campaigned for the 1992 Democratic nomination for president, former Senator Paul Tsongas said that his bid would not be affected by the non-Hodgkins lymphoma he’d received a bone marrow transplant for years earlier. Asked directly, his doctors said he’d been cancer-free since that 1986 procedure. “To be without disease five years after transplant puts [Tsongas] in the statistical category that he is not going to relapse,” his physician, Dr. Tak Takvorian, said. Tsongas’ doctors later revealed that he had indeed experienced a relapse in 1987. He lost the primary to Bill Clinton and a month after the November election was diagnosed with another type of lymphoma. He died in 1997. 

For McConnell, one of the most powerful elected officials in Washington, questions about his health are likely to continue to dog him. After his latest freezing episodes, one poll found that nearly 60% of Americans think his health and age severely limit his ability to do his job.

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