When questions were raised about Barack Obama’s birth, and whether he was actually eligible to be president of the United States, he brushed the questions aside as if answering them was beneath the dignity of a prince of the crown. He let the questions fester for years before putting them to rest.
It’s still not clear why he did that. He preferred to accuse inquiring minds that wanted to know of racism and bigotry, as if the peasants had no right to ask questions about the crown prince. The presidency is the most precious honor Americans can bestow on one of their own, but Mr. Obama treated the gift as nothing more than a trinket he was entitled to, and who were these uppity people to question him?
Only racists, bigots, mean-spirited zealots, right-wing fanatics and white Christians who couldn’t appreciate the heavenly music of the call to evening prayer at the mosque would do that. Even the mildest criticism, of the sort that every president before him had to endure, was dismissed as disrespect, even racism.
Hillary Clinton is trying a similar tactic, portraying criticism of her vulgarity, her greed and her intolerance as hatred of women, and envy of a woman finally breaking through a crystal ceiling. It’s not working, in part because men have a reputation built over the centuries for mortgaging their lives to provide for their women, and in part because nobody knows better than women themselves that the accusation is silly. Is there a woman anywhere who wants a reputation for ethics, character and feminine grace like Hillary’s?
She, like candidates before her, may not like the questions, but voters have the right to ask candidates, and particularly candidates for president, any question they please. It’s what democracy and democratic elections are about. “If you can’t stand the heat,” as Harry S. Truman reminded everyone, “stay out of the kitchen.”
The questions the Hillary campaign are trying to put off limits now are the legitimate questions about Hillary’s health. She has a well-documented record of coughing fits, fainting, stumbling up and down stairs, and uncontrolled giggling and snorting at inappropriate times. There may be good and sufficient reasons for all that, but it’s not against anybody’s rules to ask what they are.
The first serious health episode, detailed in Edward Klein’s book, “Blood Feud,” about the enduring friction between President Obama and the Clintons dating from the 2008 campaign, occurred in Hillary’s office at the State Department. She fainted and was treated at a State Department clinic and sent home to recover. That was not good enough for Bubba, ever the faithful husband, who insisted that she be flown to Manhattan and treated by specialists at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
She is said to have been diagnosed with several problems, including blood clots, one between her brain and her skull. “The unique thing about clotting in the brain is that it could have transformed into a stroke,” a cardiac specialist with no specific information about her case, told the author. Such clots are said to be particularly vulnerable to the pressures of flying.
Hillary suffered a fainting spell during a speech in Buffalo in 2005, another while boarding her plane in Yemen, which caused her to fall and break a bone in her elbow. Someone applying for a job as a Toyota mechanic, a long-distance truck driver or a newspaper columnist would have to answer questions about his or her health, but not a Democratic candidate for president of the United States. A columnist for The New York Times, who you might think would cherish the First Amendment guarantee of free inquiry, actually called on Google to prevent internet searches about Hillary’s health to silence “conspiracy theorists.”
Internet websites abound with demands that Donald Trump release his tax returns to tell all about his finances, and that would be a good thing, too. No less important, and indeed perhaps more important, are legitimate and respectful questions about Hillary’s health. Presidents have concealed health problems in the past, from the wife of Woodrow Wilson shutting him off from the world for months to run the country herself, to John F. Kennedy’s debilitating struggle with Addison’s disease.
Her doctor says Hillary’s in good health, and if so that’s good news. We should all send her the traditional Chinese wish (slightly amended) for long life and many (grand)children. But in return the American voter is entitled to a detailed report of a thorough and independent physical examination of both candidates. If such a requirement is good enough for a truck driver, it’s good enough for a candidate for president of the United States. There’s no apology for asking for it.
• Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.