President Donald Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19 earlier this month was a reminder that both presidential candidates in 2020 are members of an age group susceptible not only to the most severe impacts of the pandemic, but also are at high risk of other health-related concerns.
As we watched the national media try to separate fiction from fact in reporting on Trump’s condition, it is apparent those covering our political leaders will need a better understanding of how age impacts an individual’s physical and mental health.
The New York Times’ media critic, Ben Smith, recently wrote an opinion piece entitled “How to Cover a Politician in Decline: Blunt Truths.”
Smith focused not only on the Presidential candidates but also members of the Congressional Leadership, many of whom are older than both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. His conclusion is the press has a responsibility to scrutinize both the physical and mental capabilities of these individuals and report their findings.
But citing a person’s age as an entree to questioning their fitness to hold public office is a touchy subject. The aging process impacts individuals differently, and physical age is only part of the equation adding up to how someone will handle the tasks associated with governing. But it is not irrelevant.
Anyone who has worked in a legislative body at the state or national level can tell tales of elected officials who were no longer up to the job of representing their constituents. Important debates have been disrupted by out of touch senators or representatives who ask irrelevant questions or provoke awkward silences in hearings. More troubling are the instances of unelected aides making critical decisions, including how to vote on key issues, for incapacitated legislators.
These politicians most often represented “safe” districts, where candidates from one political party were virtually assured of winning. They were kept out of the public eye as much as possible and won primaries through local influence and massive fund-raising efforts.
Such a strategy cannot work as well in a presidential campaign, where every move of each candidate is scrutinized. But campaigns still try to manipulate the images of seriously ill politicians, and Trump’s maskless appearance on the White House balcony after returning from the hospital is a dramatic example of their efforts.
Such behavior is not new, of course. Grover Cleveland had a cancer operation on a boat to avoid media scrutiny. Woodrow Wilson’s incapacity during the final year of his presidency was hidden from public view. The severity of Ronald Reagan’s injuries after the assassination attempt during his first year in office were underplayed.
These, and other, historical precedents, combined with the tendency of the Trump Administration to lie about everything, including his physician condition, have raised serious doubts about his true experience with COVID-19.
Trump and Biden’s age mean any deceptions about the health of the president will only become a more serious concern.
Individuals in their late 70s and early 80s are certainly capable of the rigors involved in serving as elected officials at the highest levels. Advances in health care mean conditions which would have been debilitating in the past are now treated with medications having little impact on an individual’s lifestyle.
But there is also a more sobering reality. This age group can suffer health declines at a rapid pace, particularly if they have pre-existing conditions. Individuals recover from routine illnesses more slowly as they age. Serious illnesses, such as COVID-19, are even more of a danger.
Our system addressing the possibility of leaders no longer being able to carry out the responsibilities of the office to which they were elected is ineffective.
There has been discussion of the 25th Amendment over the past four years but requiring cabinet officials to acquiesce to the replacement of the person who appointed them and to whom they owe their political status is unrealistic. Similarly, removing a legislator from a position of power by their peers is a seldom-used approach, generally done because of unethical behavior, not because of health concerns.
In the end, voters must hold elected officials accountable for the truth about their health and capacity to govern and must be given ways to discover this truth. At the very least, presidential candidates should agree to an independent review of their health records and physical examination in the month before the election.
The circus arising from Trump’s hospitalization is evidence this is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug.
Since the winner of the 2020 election will be the oldest person ever elected President, their health will continue to be a matter of national, and international, concern.
Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Americans. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis.