But for people who have served on presidential campaigns, her illness isn’t that surprising.
“In every presidential campaign I’ve worked on, senior staff, candidates, someone was getting pneumonia and the entire plane was just a hacking, coughing disaster,” said Joe Trippi, who has been working on Democratic presidential campaigns since 1980.
The worst, Trippi said, was Dick Gephardt’s 1988 bid for the presidency.
“The plane was rolling pneumonia hell. He was hacking away the whole time, and I certainly was. ... I think I could arguably say I’ve gotten pneumonia on every presidential campaign I’ve been on,” he said, adding, “I’ve literally been laying on the floor of the jet with a blanket over me on the floor.”
“Campaign life is very unhealthy,” added Ryan Williams, who served as press secretary for Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. “You’re usually eating a lot of terrible food, working long hours. You’re around a lot of people, which of course increases your exposure to germs. And you get sick.”
Williams said he and other staffers usually ate whatever was put out for volunteers that day, which often meant pizza and ice cream. And then there was the booze: At the end of the day, staffers or reporters often go out drinking. In the final few months, he’d be going to bed at 12:30 or 1 a.m. and waking up three hours later.
As a result, Williams gained 25 pounds by the end of the campaign.
“I never got pneumonia. I would just get colds frequently,” he said. “I’ve seen all kinds of stuff. On a Senate race I worked on, a young guy was putting up yard signs, and at the end of the campaign, he got Lyme disease. He got a tick on him from putting up a sign somewhere, and he was laid up in bed with Lyme disease.”
Questions about Clinton’s condition picked up on Sunday, when she abruptly left a ceremony in New York honoring the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and stumbled before being helped into a van by Secret Service agents. Her campaign later revealed that two days earlier, her doctor had diagnosed her with pneumonia.
The media quickly questioned why the campaign hadn’t disclosed her pneumonia earlier, and Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri admitted that they could have handled the issue better.
Clinton hasn’t been the only one affected by pneumonia. An official said there was a “very ugly bug going around” the staff before the candidate herself fell ill.
Another campaign source described the Brooklyn headquarters as a “two-story petri dish.”
“So many staff have frequented the Mt. Sinai urgent care clinic on the 18th floor of the same building as headquarters that when patients arrive, they’re often immediately asked if they work on the campaign,” the source said.
Donald Trump and his supporters have been questioning Clinton’s health for months. (Clinton is actually two years younger than the GOP presidential nominee.) He has called her “low energy” and said she likes to take naps. And last week, conservative media made hay out of Clinton’s coughing spells.
Veteran campaign operatives said the reason Clinton staffers likely didn’t bring up the candidate’s pneumonia wasn’t to hide something ― although they likely didn’t want to feed into the conservative narrative ― but rather that there is a mindset, especially during this critical home stretch, that you need to just power through it. Taking a sick day isn’t an option.
“Almost always, you just push on,” said Ann Lewis, who was deputy campaign manager for Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996. “And again, the question then is: What’s the line? If you have a bad cold? Probably not.”
“I’m sure her attitude was, ‘I’ll push through it, I’m just going to keep pushing, don’t cancel my schedule,’” Trippi added. “It wasn’t to hold a press conference and say she was diagnosed with pneumonia so we’re going to take it easy. It’s not about hiding that she had pneumonia, it’s that pneumonia is nothing, let’s keep moving.”
At this point in a campaign, a candidate’s time is especially valuable. Campaigns need to reach as many people as possible, and the best way to connect with voters is to have the candidate out there meeting people.
“A day lost is one you’ll never get back, especially when you’re this close to the election day,” Lewis said. “A lot of people work hard to put these events together, and you don’t want to disappoint them ― you want to get out there. It’s a very tough choice.”
“It’s a very taxing line of work,” Williams added. “But it’s a lot of work but the reward is pretty amazing. If you win, you’ve won the White House. So something like that obviously shouldn’t come easy.”
Sam Stein contributed reporting.