In a year where the election is not particularly close, the media has leapt at any chance to make Secretary Clinton’s victory seem less assured and amplify the perception of a horserace. This week’s scandal du jour, Hillary Clinton’s illness on the campaign trail, exists at a particularly savage intersection of gender and ability.
There have been countless examples and articles written about the gendered media treatment of Clinton for years. Even as a general rule, women don’t benefit from the same presumption of competence that men do: stereotyped as “the weaker sex,” any hint of confirmation for that bias is pounced upon with the eagerness of a starving leopard, and this extends to physical weakness. That is why General Petraeus can faint in a hearing without having his fitness to serve questioned, and why a cancer survivor like John McCain was never called upon to drop out of the race on the basis of his health, certainly not with this ferocity, but any hint that Hillary Clinton is not an ideal physical specimen is the scandal of the news cycle.
In light of the asymmetrical media treatment of Clinton’s illness, many people have trotted out the multiple celebrated Presidents and prominent political figures who served with visible or invisible disabilities, and many of these figures illustrate how the history of presidential illness and disability does not quite track with the public’s preconceived notions about what constitutes cause for concern. Age, for example, is a gross proxy for health, yet it plays an undeniable role in the anxieties around Clinton’s and even Trump’s medical history. John McCain, the first candidate to release extended medical records, was 71 when he ran, and his release normalized calls for Clinton and Trump to do the same, but the 2016 candidates lack the history of cancer and other health issues that prompted McCain to disclose so much of his health.
As those historical examples indicate, youth hardly immunizes presidents from disability or disease: Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest to take office, contracted malaria that ultimately precluded a 1920 re-election bid and resulted in his death. John F Kennedy, the youngest president elected, had multiple chronic illnesses including Addison’s disease and hypothyroidism, as well as chronic and severe lower back pain. Had Kennedy released the extended medical records that contemporary media demand, for instance, public anxiety about illness might well have prevented the election of a man who is now one of the most celebrated 20th century presidents. When so many of our great presidents are name-checked in these lists, we should interrogate why illness and disability so trouble the voters that politicians like Kennedy opted to hide their disabilities from the public, a course of action much easier before the advent of television and social media, which has made amateur Internet detectives of the masses.
At the same time that our politicians’ illnesses and disabilities have become more public and visible, the demands we make on their bodies have become more severe. Our expectations of presidential campaigns, enabled by modern air travel and buoyed by the requirements of the 24-hour news cycle, have made seeking office into an endurance sport, an exercise in exhaustion far beyond the physical requirements of the Presidency itself. The constant travel and minimal sleep is simply not healthy for anyone of any age, gender, or ability level anyway. Just as workers throughout America are expected to work long hours and take no sick days, sacrificing our health with minimal additional productivity to show for it, the arduous campaigns we encourage our candidates to undertake make them sick. Illness does not reflect on Clinton, but it does demonstrate a worrying and toxic aspect of the electoral process we’ve developed for her to run in.
And yet, in an age of insecurity, Americans demand an image of physical infallibility from their Presidents and Presidential candidates, and any moment illness or disability shatters that soothing illusion. It is not unique to politicians: large companies whose CEOs fall ill see their stock prices suffer as a result. Nor is it limited to Americans: virile, shirtless images of Vladimir Putin are intended to serve the same purpose. The more uncertain the public, the more they seek strength from executives and punish leaders whose organic, fallible bodies fail to reach these unrealistic demands. Brutal campaign schedules that break down the immune systems of our politicians (and their staffers!) are seen as a stress test, the electoral equivalent of Navy SEALs’ Hell Week, but voters’ desire for the psychological comfort of a perfect leader who never fails them in any way—including physically—does not mean that it is a valid or worthwhile test of a potential President.
Meanwhile, disabled people are all too aware of the ableism undergirding this desire for supposed flawlessness. When illness and disability are claimed as disqualifications for Clinton, it reflects the societal notion that disabled people are not equipped to handle tough jobs, and that we would crack under the pressure, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. It is the same ableist assumption that contributes to the unemployment rate that is more than double for disabled people in the workforce than our nondisabled counterparts: political office is just one more job that disabled people allegedly can’t handle. We are presumed incompetent, disability framed only as a liability, and treated to constant uninformed presumptions about the impact of our bodies and health on our ability to do our jobs.
Clinton’s health has the subject of mass scrutiny and accusations of a lack of transparency for not updating the press on the minutia of her health while her counterpart’s campaign cannot even maintain a consistent position on the importance of releasing medical records. Like so much of this bizarre campaign and its coverage, it is a gross double-standard.
Clinton is not disabled. She is not chronically ill. Despite the perception one might get from the coverage and conspiracy theories, she is not even in particularly poor health. But as we interrogate troubling discourse that has brought us to this point, we should ask: so what if she were?
Photo: Ralph Alswang for the Center for American Progress/Creative Commons