While writing yesterday about centenarians and attempting to connect the art world of 100 years ago to electoral politics, I began exploring the parallels between Trump’s hospitalization and the medical emergencies of past presidents. News sites resurfaced these stories in recent days: the president who secretly had part of his cancerous jaw removed on a yacht to avoid unsettling the public (Cleveland); the president who died after doctors used a panicked combination of mustard plaster, opium, bloodletting, heat-induced blisters, brandy and snakeweed to fight what was either common pneumonia or a bacterial infection in (Harrison); the many others, including Wilson, FDR, Kennedy and Eisenhower, who suppressed stories about their health.
One hundred years ago, Warren Harding was campaigning for president. He would win in November and die in office two years later of a heart condition that erupted while on an ambitious nationwide tour that took him to Alaska and British Columbia, and would have proceeded south through the Panama Canal to Puerto Rico. Instead, he died in a San Francisco hotel after suffering the heart problems emerged following a speech in Seattle. He made a show for the press of walking from the train to his car, much like Trump’s efforts to make a show for the cameras during and after his stay at Walter Reed. The difference of course is that Covid-19 is a contagious disease. Making a show of strength to inspire confidence in your base is foolhardy when the act exposes everyone around you to the coronavirus. Many White House advisors and an unknown number of staff (cleaners, cooks, etc.) have now been infected.
I’m sure the White House used the time at Walter Reed to gather every conceivable medical need on site at the White House and avoid another spectacle of perceived weakness. But the man is a danger to everyone around him in the meantime. He is talking of campaigning, of venturing to the next debate in person, despite apparent weakness in walking a short distance and climbing steps yesterday. The ambitious itinerary that led to Harding’s death was dangerous to a President who was prone to fatigue. But flying a contagious president who has trouble breathing around the country would be a spectacle of malpractice on top of malpractice.
The scandals of Harding’s corrupt administration were prosecuted by Congress well into his vice president’s tenure in the White House. I’m hoping Trump is with us long enough to see the dozens of loose threads of scandal wind their way through the courts in the months and years to come.