“When you’re running for president, I think, you have an obligation to be healthy,” Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, told Dr. Mehmet Oz on “The Dr. Oz Show” Thursday.
The interview came in the same week that the media and Republicans criticized Trump’s opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, about being less than candid about her recent bout with pneumonia.
Trump revealed that his blood pressure, liver and thyroid function are within the normal range on the much-anticipated show, and acknowledged some concerns about his weight.
Trump ― who weighs 236 pounds, doesn’t exercise regularly and enjoys fast food ― said he “could lose a little weight” when Oz questioned him about his body-mass index, which is in the outer limits of overweight category, according to the National Institutes of Health calculator.
But just how healthy do you have to be in order to be president? And why is everyone so focused on the candidates’ health, instead of their policies?
Arthur Caplan, the founding director of New York University’s Division of Medical Ethics, thinks Clinton and Trump’s relative old age ― she is 68, he is 70 ― is the reason there’s been such intent focus on the candidates’ medical records.
“In other elections, we’ve had younger people running, so health doesn’t come up as an obvious thing to folks in the same way,” Caplan said. Another possible factor ― Clinton’s gender. “Are they watching the same way that they would if she was a male?” Caplan asked.
Presidential candidates releasing their medical information at all is a relatively modern phenomenon, largely dating back to when Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas sought the 1992 Democratic nomination as a cancer survivor.
Bill Clinton went on to cinch the nomination and Tsongas died in early 1997 ― just a few days before the inauguration ― meaning he technically wouldn’t have lived out his term if he had been elected.
And historically, presidents have been less than transparent about their health. John F. Kennedy denied that he had Addison’s disease diagnosis ― a hormonal condition that can be life-threatening, according to the Mayo Clinic ― during his 1960 campaign, and Bill Clinton resisted releasing his records when he ran for president in 1992.
Even though it can be downright illegal to ask for health information in many professions, several careers ― including pilot, train engineer and fire fighter ― count on medical records as an essential part of the application process.
Serving as president of the United States isn’t a physical position like the careers listed above, but an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, or a diagnosis that could cause the candidate to die in office, such as a pressing terminal illness, might be relevant. (Clearly pneumonia is not on this short list.)
“Do we need them to release the whole records?” Caplan asked. “No. We just need them to say, ‘We have examined Hillary and she’s fit to serve.’”
When health becomes partisan
Outside of a critical diagnosis that would make it impossible to serve a four-year term, one unfortunate trend of the latest campaign cycle has been near constant hypothesizing about the candidates’ health ― from conspiracy theories about Hillary’s neurological system to unfounded mental health diagnoses of Trump.
“This whole attempt to speculate about somebody’s health from afar is really not productive and is just feeding politics,” Caplan said. “It shouldn’t be done and the media shouldn’t indulge it.”
During the 2008 election, which included another septuagenarian candidate, Republican nominee John McCain, then 71, a high-profile panel of doctors floated the idea of an independent medical examination of both presidential candidates, but didn’t gain much traction.
Dr. Connie Mariano, who served as White House physician for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and who was on that committee, told CNN in 2015 that the proposed panel was unrealistic in today’s polarized political climate.
“You have to have compliance by the person who is running for office,” Mariano said, noting that a Democratic candidate might not want to be evaluated by a Republican doctor, or vice versa. The only solution in her eyes: A free and inquisitive press.
Caplan hopes that when the debates start, the attention will shift toward policy and away from wild speculation about personality disorders or physical conditions. Until then, however, here’s what we do know about Clinton and Trump’s health. (Whether or not we have any right to that information is a different story.):