The health of a prospective president is one of the most important issues of any campaign, but whether to ask hard questions about a candidate is usually a matter of whose prospective president, and whose health. When the prospective president is a Democrat, the media only sends candy, flowers and best wishes.
Ours is a curious campaign, and the precedents set in the coverage of it are dark and dangerous because they’re likely to be long-lasting. Objectivity, honored if sometimes only in the breach for more than a century, is regarded this year as no longer necessary because “going after Donald Trump” is not only legitimate, but morally righteous.
If you’re a reporter or pundit and believe that Mr. Trump is evil, or at least bad, “you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career,” Jim Rutenberg, the “mediator” at The New York Times, wrote Monday. “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that.”
Thus partisan opinion officially becomes fact, the only “news” that’s fit to print. It was a moment to mourn objectivity, which newspapers have held high for what seems like forever. RIP.
The latest contretemps is over the health of Hillary Clinton, and whether there should be any discussion of it, and if so, how, and who should do the discussing. Her stumbling, fainting, severe coughing and moments of odd behavior on the campaign have been much talked about by the reporters following her, but this knowledge was veiled in a discreet silence, until now.
The Drudge Report, which everybody on the bus reads as an early take on the news of the world, led Monday with an inventory of her health missteps and photographs of her being helped up the steps of a private house, held up by several aides. The clearly intended question posed is whether the Democratic nominee is ailing, and if so, how. Carol Costello, a news hostess on CNN, observed that the Drudge item had been up all weekend and asked a Trump aide: “Will Donald Trump go there?”
The question would once have been bizarre for a journalist, even a television journalist. The question would have been, would reporters go there? And if not, why not? “Going there” is what a reporter is paid to do, to see whether there’s a story there, and if not, to say so — loud and clear. Instead Mzz Costello, who is neither a physician nor has she examined Hillary Clinton’s health, acknowledged the health episodes, but assured her viewers: “She has totally recovered.” She did not say how she knows that.
The Drudge Report cited four health episodes over the years Hillary has campaigned for president: needing assistance climbing stairs this year, a blood clot on the brain in 2012, a fall while boarding an airplane in 2011 and a fall on her way to the White House in 2009. One of the accompanying photographs, by Reuters, shows her losing her balance while touring a substance abuse center in Charleston, S.C.
None of the incidents, taken as single episodes, appears to a layman’s eye to be a symptom of something to take her out of the campaign, and if, as “Dr.” Costello of CNN says, “she has totally recovered,” we can all be glad of that, and wish her good health, if not too much happiness on the way to November 8.
But the incident, and the media anger at having been caught out not doing its job, should be a caution for correspondents, editors and others in the media. We’ve been here before.
John F. Kennedy was asked by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 whether he suffered from Addison’s disease, a debilitating malfunction of the adrenal glands. The glands produce key regulatory hormones, and if the hormones cannot be sufficiently replaced by synthetics, wasting and death nearly always follow.
JFK denied it all, declaring that he was “the healthiest candidate for president in the country,” a sly dig at LBJ, who had suffered a severe heart attack five years earlier. Robert F. Kennedy declared that his brother “does not now nor has he ever had an ailment described classically as Addison’s disease.” It was a clever dodge. He knew that the disease had been first identified by one Dr. Thomas Addison in 1855, who said the disease was caused by tuberculosis. JFK never had tuberculosis, but an autopsy performed 13 years later, after the assassination, revealed that Addison’s disease had destroyed his adrenal glands.
Drugs can control many diseases, but lies cannot. This is a hard lesson that politicians learn only with stubborn difficulty.
• Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.