Are presidents their own worst patients?

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, October 7, 2020

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When you’re “the leader of the free world,” your health is of paramount concern.  But we’ve had a few United States Presidents who have shown more hubris than common sense when occupying such a distinguished position.  The results are enough to make anyone sick.

In 1840 William Henry Harrison, a Whig, was elected to the Presidency.  Though a noted Indian from the winner of the Battle of Tippecanoe and the one who crushed British forces in the War of 1812 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, he was regarded as having more brawn than brains.  So President Harrison thought he’d show them a thing or two about how smart he was.  The following year, he decided to give a long-winded Inauguration Day speech in a cold, driving rainstorm, hatless, to show how tough he was.  Harrison fell ill that day and died in about a month, perhaps proving his critics right.

Harrison’s death put John Tyler in office.  Placed on the ticket to win over some Democrats over, Tyler feuded so much with the Whig Congress swept in that they expelled the sitting President from the party.  As my undergraduates researched, he kept sending Supreme Court nominees to the Congress that he knew would be rejected, setting up a Constitutional crisis.  Harrison and Tyler often rank pretty low among presidents in surveys for “effectiveness.”

Then there’s President Woodrow Wilson from the Democratic Party, who has a lot of surprising ties to Georgia (raised in Augusta, married in Savannah, practiced law in Atlanta).  You’d think an academic and college president from Princeton would be a pretty smart guy.  Wilson did have some popular progressive pieces of legislation, but also some pretty extreme views on race, possibly influenced by the pseudo-science of the time, that have undermined his standing among presidential historians, and deservedly so.  But Wilson, at the moment of his brilliance at the end of World War I with his 14 Points and the League of Nations idea, caught the Spanish Flu because he wasn’t very careful, perhaps arrogantly believing he wouldn’t catch it.

The results were disastrous.  A weakened President Wilson threw in the towel during the Versailles negotiations, bartering away his wise postwar plan, and letting the other Allies impose harsh terms on Germany that set the stage for World War II.  He used his remaining strength to push for a robust League of Nations, then suffered a stroke for his ill-advised campaigning, and became enfeebled.  The U.S. didn’t even ratify the League of Nations or the Versailles Treaty.

And Donald Trump?  Well, clear images of his numerous events, including the potential super-spreader event outside the White House for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a largely maskless affair with no effort at any wise physical distancing, ensured that more people caught COVID-19 at that event than entire countries like Taiwan and New Zealand have reported in cases in recent weeks and months, another embarrassment.  More than 6 in 10 voters say President Trump did not take proper precautions.  He also probably shouldn’t have mocked Biden for wearing a mask.

President Trump passed a limited China travel ban, refused to expand the travel restrictions to Europe for a long time, exempting Great Britain who was trying out “herd immunity”, falsely claiming “he shut it down,” assumed it would go away, pressured governors to reopen early, pushed bizarre cures and strategies, held mass rallies with few restrictions and went largely maskless.  He joins Presidents Harrison and Wilson as examples of leaders who probably could have used a little Christian humility to realize that they were only human.