It’s no surprise that presidential candidates tend to be a little older. The average age among all presidents is just under 55 at the time of inauguration. The youngest U.S. president was Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed office at the age of 42. Ronald Reagan occupies the other end of the spectrum, being sworn in two weeks shy of his 70th birthday. With age comes questions about health, and after Hillary Clinton’s recent bout with pneumonia, questions about candidates’ health are making the rounds again.
It may seem odd today during a time of unprecedented information exchange, but until recently, a candidate’s health was considered a private matter. Candidates have no legal requirement to submit a clean bill of health before assuming office, and voters have often shown a willingness to take chances on a candidate’s age and health record. Woodrow Wilson was elected after suffering at least one stroke, the eventual cause of his death. Franklin Roosevelt was elected FOUR times after being paralyzed from Polio and continued in office until his death.
Perhaps it is worth noting that, of the eight U.S. presidents who have died in office, only four have died from natural causes (and two of those deaths resulted from illnesses unknown even to the candidates at the time of inauguration). But whether the possibility is real or imagined, contemporary voters are much more sensitive to candidates’ health issues. Three relatively recent events led to this new sensitivity.
One event that brought candidate health to the forefront is the death of Massachusetts Senator and 1992 presidential candidate Paul Tsongas. After leaving the Senate in 1984 for cancer treatment, Tsongas’ recovery prompted his presidential run against Bill Clinton. Dropping out of the race in March, by December Tsongas was once again fighting cancer, a fight he would continue until his death in 1997. Voters realized the gravity of their decision, that a Tsongas victory would have resulted in a leader unfit for duty.
Facing questions similar to those faced by Ronald Reagan in his presidential runs, John McCain, also a cancer survivor, was bombarded with questions about his age and fitness. Perhaps prompted by the addition of Sarah Palin as his running mate, voters refused to give McCain the benefit of the doubt, especially against his 47-year-old competition, Barack Obama. The 65-year-old Mitt Romney did not draw the same kind of questions as his predecessor.
Unlike recent elections, the candidates for this election cycle are much closer in age (Hillary is 69; Trump is 70), but health is still a major concern, one exploited at every opportunity. Rumors of a Hillary Clinton body double circulating on social media are an example that voters are suspicious about candidate’s health or the potential for coverup. Only time will tell whether these rumors are opposition tactics or actual cause for concern, but one thing is certain. For voters, health is on the table, and the degree to which voters care about health will shape elections for years to come.
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