Political Science Discussion: A President’s Privacy vs. Public’s Right to Know

medical worker with finger over lips and "shhhh" spelled out
Political Science
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Author: Svetla Ben-Itzhak, Ph.D., Kansas State University

The following is a teaching approach to discussing the topic of privacy in your Political Science courses. Read on for teaching tips and questions to share with students.

Teaching Tip: Start with a question, from the personal to the public.  

Question 1: If you became seriously sick, would you tell your friends and your employer?

Question 2: If the president of the United States became seriously ill, should they tell us, the American people?

Being a president is a weird job. In a democracy, the president is the leader of a country, but they’re also an employee of the people.

So, if a president gets sick, do they have the right to keep their health problems to themselves? Or, do the American people, the president’s employer, have the right to know?

By some accounts, President Donald Trump holds the record for saying things that are demonstratively untrue. However, when it comes to covering up the president’s health problems, his administration is part of a long history of White House obfuscation.

Do presidents have the right to keep their health problems to themselves? Throughout American history, many presidents have responded: “YES!”

Here’s a short list of American presidents who hid their health problems from the public.

Teaching Tip: Divide the class into smaller groups, then have each student present a case of a president hiding his health issues from the public.

James Madison

Madison didn’t disclose any information about the severe intestinal ailment and fever that made him unable to do his job for almost a month in 1813. His illness became so incapacitating that he couldn’t even read written documents, including congressional resolutions. Madison did send an urgent letter to members of Congress to inform them he could not see them, “nor can he at present fix a day when it will be in his power.” However, he never provided details about his incapacitating illness.

Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln suffered from numerous ailments during his time in office, including smallpox in 1863. The pressing exigencies of the Civil War along with other issues that he had to deal with at the time served as an excuse not to divulge the real extent of his illness nor to provide timely updates about his condition.

Grover Cleveland

Cleveland developed a cancerous tumor at the root of his mouth and had to undergo surgery in 1893. His close officials went through elaborate schemes to keep his health problems a secret.

In order to perform the surgery in secret, Cleveland was snuck into a yacht that belonged to a close friend. The American public was told he had gone on a fishing trip.

The operation took place on that boat with six doctors present, all sworn to secrecy. In about 90 minutes, the doctors removed most of Cleveland’s upper left palette, five teeth and a good part of his upper left jaw. Cleveland was then fitted with a prosthetic device that he would pop up into his jaw.

His administration managed to keep the press at bay during the surgery and at a distance while he recovered at his home on Cape Cod. It took about three weeks for the wound to heal well enough. His aids maintained he had had a bad tooth. The secret held for 24 years.

Franklin Roosevelt

FDR was never transparent about his health. He tried to conceal his paralysis and hid the maladies that led to his fatal cerebral hemorrhage.

For years, he hid the fact that he used a wheelchair—and largely got away with it. Secret service agents often seized photographers’ cameras and confiscated pictures, which kept the president’s wheelchair usage under wraps.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Though he was the first president to open up medical records, when he had a massive heart attack in September 1955, his administration went into cover-up mode. His doctors told the press that he had indigestion, instead.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy flatly denied that he had Addison’s disease: a hormonal deficiency that can cause fatigue, low blood pressure and weight loss.

While in office, he had times when he took several medications a day, including pain killers, stimulants, antibiotics, steroids and hormones, just to function. He was essentially a walking pharmacy. His doctors kept his condition secret from the American public.

Ronald Reagan

After Reagan was shot in 1981, his doctors understated how much blood he had lost. In fact, the White House released a photo showing him standing with Nancy Reagan, but they cropped out a nurse holding a machine connected to a chest tube, which came out from under his robe. They never revealed how close he came to dying, as they didn’t want the president to be known as an invalid. 

Question 3: Why do presidents go through so much trouble to hide their health problems?

A dental surgery, a wheelchair or a slight pill addition may not be big issues as long as presidents can still do their job.

However, there’s at least one case of a president when he became so sick, he couldn’t do the job—and they still didn’t tell the American people.

Woodrow Wilson

Wilson suffered a stroke that not even his closest advisors knew about it. The last year and a half (almost) in office, he was incapacitated. His wife tried to conceal how bad his condition was.

It turns out that, as a result of the stroke, Wilson was left partially blind and partially paralyzed. He was kept in a bed, upstairs in the White House, while his wife, Edith Wilson, and his doctors told the cabinet and the vice president that the president was OK. He simply needed to rest and while he was in seclusion upstairs, they would pass down his decisions.

They told the American public their president was suffering from exhaustion. In reality, many say that Edith Wilson effectively ran the country during that time, successfully concealing the real extent of Wilson’s incapacitating health problems.


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