When I was 11 years old, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. As I detailed in the LA Times shortly after Obamacare allowed me to buy my own insurance for the first time, Crohn’s is an autoimmune disorder that causes severe stomach problems and stays with you your whole life.
For most of my youth, including high school and college, I was afraid to talk to people about having Crohn’s. I didn’t want them to look at me differently. I didn’t want them to think I was weak – even though I did at times feel weak physically. I wanted to be the guy who excelled, not the guy who excelled despite a persistent physical disability.
As I got older, I loosened up on letting people know the truth about why I might disappear to the bathroom for a half an hour on end. I didn’t advertise my condition, but I didn’t try to hide it either. I realized that I was a grown-up and other grown-ups would understand.
Even so, I still had a lingering sense of being worth a little less – not worthless, just worth less – particularly when it came to dating or romantic relationships. I remember talking to a friend after a doctor’s visit around my 29th birthday about how even though my checkup had gone well, I was always afraid that things might go downhill in the future and if I was in a romantic relationship with a woman, she’d have to deal with that.
My friend assured me that my other spectacular qualities (intellect, sense of humor, winning smile) would more than make up for any potential physical impairments. Even so, I couldn’t get rid of the lingering sense that those positive qualities might “lure some poor woman into being stuck with me.” It didn’t feel great.
Then a wonderful thing happened: I entered my 30s.
All of a sudden, everyone I knew had some kind of medical ailment of one kind or another, and I was getting calls from friends to bring them to their colonoscopies because I, unlike their other pals, wasn’t remotely intimidated by a medical procedure. Indeed, as it turned out, I was actually better at dealing with all that health business because I’d had a twenty year head start!
And I didn’t feel like some poor woman would be stuck with me either, because if the reality is that everyone has something they’re dealing with, or has something they’re going to be dealing with in the foreseeable future, then we’re all really kind of on the same page. No one is worth more or less than anyone else because of their health. Only a child would think otherwise.
That’s why I was so taken aback by the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s apparently minor health scare on Sunday. Right-wingers were arguing that she was hiding something more severe than pneumonia, like Parkinson’s; Bernie hardest core supporters started suggesting that maybe it was time to sub in Bernie; Hillary’s proponents were insisting that nothing serious was going on, she was fine, she just had a passing virus, not a chronic illness.
To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who navigated the country through the Great Depression and World War II from a wheelchair: What the actual fuck?
Put aside the countless famous men who’ve had passing bouts of sickness without speculation that they were hiding a chronic illness – from David Petraeus (who passed out during one of his testimonies to Congress) to George H.W. Bush (who famously threw up on an overseas trip) to Gerald Ford (whose physical clumsiness basically launched Chevy Chase’s career on Saturday Night Live). Clearly there’s a gendered double standard here, but that’s actually the lesser point.
The larger point is that John F. Kennedy pulled the world back from the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis while managing multiple chronic illnesses. Abraham Lincoln led the country through the Civil War while clearly battling what we now call clinical depression. Ronald Reagan was dealing with the beginnings of dementia during his second term in office and still managed to do Iran-Contra.
Okay, maybe that’s not the best example, but still.
And by the way, those are only the real presidents who dealt with chronic illnesses while leading the country. Jed Bartlet did it on The West Wing and still managed to wrap up multiple major crises every 45 minutes. Laura Roslin did it on Battlestar Galactica and not only led her people to salvation but also remains the only woman in a pantsuit to ever be routinely cosplayed at conventions around the world. (Beat that, Hillary!)
Inevitably, Hillary’s detractors would argue that the issue isn’t whether Hillary has a health condition but whether she’s concealed it. But the way that mainstream and social media have gone apoplectic the past few days, I wouldn’t blame her if she was concealing something – which she almost certainly isn’t, because a presidential campaign would exhaust most healthy people.
Plus, the media traveled on the plane with her for four years while she was racking up more miles than anyone in history while traveling around the world as Secretary of State and none of them apparently saw anything, and you know they’d have reported it if they did see something because it would sell papers and get clicks and pump up ratings (just like it has this week).
Real talk though: Hillary could go on TV tomorrow and say she has Parkinson’s, and Crohn’s Disease, and clinical depression, and gout, and lupus, and cancer, and AIDS, and restless leg, and I would still gladly vote for her – not just because she’s not a bigoted, misogynistic, unstable authoritarian (though that is nice) but also because the presidency is designed to have a strong backup in place in the event that someone dies.
It’s called the vice president, and unlike when septuagenarian John McCain picked half-term governor (and full-term nitwit) Sarah Palin to be his VP, Hillary has Senator Tim Kaine, who was also the governor of Virginia and could step in and take over if God forbid he needed to.
That raises the question of who Donald Trump’s VP is, and the answer is really worth remembering, especially as progressives do outreach to young voters: Before Indiana Governor Mike Pence was Donald Trump’s sidekick/hostage in batshit insane interviews, he was the guy who signed a 2015 anti-gay law that was so egregious, it outraged not only wide swaths of Facebook but also large multinational corporations who typically don’t give a damn about anything except their bottom line. So if Donald Trump’s veiny face ever spontaneously explodes like a drummer from Spinal Tap, Mike Pence gets to bring his Inquisition-lite policies to the oval office.
Again, to paraphrase FDR: Are you fucking kidding me?
Look, I get the primal, hunter-gatherer appeal of apparently “healthy” leaders like Vladamir Putin, whose notorious chest is rivaled only by Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But lest everyone forget: Khan was the bad guy in that movie – just like Trump’s hero Putin is in real life.
And in real life, in the modern world, the physical strength of our leaders (and most of our workforce) is completely irrelevant. It might seem fun to have a president who can wrestle a bear to the ground, rip it limb from limb and defile its mutilated corpse, but it’s also totally unnecessary – especially when the president has drones.
Instead, the modern president’s primary job is to wrestle with insanely complicated and difficult situations that nobody at a lower level could figure out, to really think through the toughest calls.
The key question then is the condition of a candidate’s mind, and whether you love Hillary Clinton or think she’s some kind of brilliantly manipulative evil genius (so brilliantly manipulative that she could somehow keep a chronic ailment secret), there’s no doubt that she is in full command of her larger than average brain. That’s a lot better than only being in partial command of a smaller than average brain, which is what appears to be the case with Donald Trump.
The bottom line is that at absolute worst, in the very unlikely event that Hillary Clinton does have a chronic illness, that just means she’s like me or anyone else who deals with an ongoing health problem – including eventually, probably, you.
We’re all human. We’re all mortal. In the scheme of things, we’re all frail. Those who try to pretend otherwise about themselves or their leaders do a disservice to themselves and their country.