With President Donald Trump being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Oct. 2 and later hospitalized, his condition brought new attention to presidential health and the secrecy that surrounds it. The president was reported to have recovered from the coronavirus quickly and made his first White House appearance on the Blue Room balcony over the weekend, even peeling off his mask as supporters gathered outside.
On Sunday, Trump said he was healthy enough to return to the campaign trail and claimed in an interview with Fox News that he is now “immune” to the virus. His rush to get back to business, as Election Day swiftly approaches, isn’t a new attitude when it comes to presidents, according to historians.
“Presidents hate to look weak and they don't want anybody to know. So they'll do anything they can to cover up any malady that they might have,” Writer and historian Matthew Algeo told Inside Edition Digital. “And when they do and the doctor goes out and gives us misinformation, in a way the doctor is just doing what the patient wants.”
Algeo, who wrote the book “The President Is a Sick Man,” said there have been several health cover-ups involving presidents in the past.
In 1893, President Grover Cleveland, in the beginning of his second term, had surgery on a yacht to remove a cancerous tumor from his mouth because he didn’t want anyone to know about it.
“Cleveland was afraid that if people knew he had cancer, that the economy would collapse. And so that's why he decided to have this operation to remove the cancerous tumor on a friend's boat, on a yacht,” Algeo said.
The surgery stayed a secret for years, even though a reporter, EJ Edwards, broke the story later that year in a Philadelphia newspaper. The Cleveland administration completely denied the report and Edwards' reputation was tarnished. In 1917, however, one of the doctors who participated in the operation finally came clean because he’d felt bad about what happened to Edward.
Another case of presidential secrecy when it comes to health came with President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had a stroke during his term, but his administration played it off as exhaustion for months. He ended up being incapacitated for the rest of his presidency, Algeo said.
“In October of 1919, he suffered a massive stroke at the White House and he was completely incapacitated for four months,” Algeo said. “His doctor, though, said he was suffering from nervous exhaustion. This was a catch-all phrase at the time for somebody who was not feeling well, and so it didn't come out that he had had a stroke until four months later.”
John F. Kennedy experienced a variety of medical conditions that he didn’t share with the public as well, according to Algeo. And Ronald Reagan nearly died after an assassination attempt was made on him in 1981. He walked into the hospital that day.
“He didn't realize that a bullet had penetrated his side,” Algeo said. “He wanted to look healthy and he knew he was in some pain, but he didn't realize exactly how serious the situation was.”
Striking a balance between the right to privacy and the right for the American public to know what's happening with a president's health can be tough. Algeo calls in a “basic contradiction.”
“The American people, the public, us, we have a right to know if the president is healthy. And so it's just an inherent contradiction that is right now, completely unresolvable,” Algeo said. “Right now we have no system at all, we are on the honor system when it comes to the health of the president."