The health of a president is always of interest to the American public. Citizens expect to know if their leader is fit for the job, but a look at history shows that many serious medical conditions have been hidden by presidents and White House staff, often with the cooperation of a friendly press. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan to varying degrees publicly projected good health and vigor while fighting serious diseases. Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke 17 months before the end of his second term and was hidden from the public and Congress by his wife and top aides for most of his remaining time in office. Less known is that President Grover Cleveland, a politician applauded for honesty and openness, also hid what could have been a life threatening condition and the operation performed to save him.
According to Matthew Algeo in his book The President is a Sick Man, Cleveland discovered a lesion growing inside his mouth, on the side where he regularly chewed expensive cigars, just after starting his second term in 1893. Consumed by the Panic of 1893, he ignored the growth for a couple of months. At the time of his illness, he was leading a fight to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which was forcing the U.S. Treasury to buy large amounts of silver monthly with funds it did not have to prop up silver-backed currency. Banks and big corporations were closing daily. The vote in Congress promised to be very close. Cleveland felt he would lose what support he had should the state of his health be known.
So, on July 1, he quietly left the White House with an advisor, secretly rode a train to New York, and boarded a friend's yacht, on which a team of surgeons and a dentist were assembled to remove the cancer, as well as four teeth and a large portion of the roof of his mouth. At sea, the doctors and the dentist were sworn to secrecy, and the press reported that Cleveland was on vacation. How Cleveland and his staff managed the ruse, what they did to deny a news story, and how the story became known many years later are parts of Algeo's story.
Readers seeing the title may expect a political diatribe, but The President is a Sick Man is a well-told history that reveals much about the country in the late 19th Century. With its comments about future administrations, it might also be a good choice for book groups who like the history of medicine and politics.
Algeo, Matthew. The President is a Sick Man. Chicago Review Press, 2011. ISBN 9781569763506