“‘One of the healthiest Presidents in history,’ as [his] doctor once described him, was hospitalized …, the first time he has missed a day’s work because of illness since entering the White House.” That excerpt, from the July 15, 1973, edition of the New York Times, referred, of course, to then president Richard M. Nixon. At that point the embattled president was in the thick of the Watergate scandal.
I was 17 and still recall the immediate cynical public reaction: Nixon was faking it. Nixon was just fine, or he was inflating a cold into something much worse, all to garner sympathy. I remember thinking that could be true but hoped it wasn’t. I didn’t want to believe that the office of the presidency, an institution for which I had great respect, had sunk lower than it already had at that point.
It turned out Nixon really was sick with viral pneumonia, so sick that he should have been hospitalized right away. In fact Nixon tried to minimize the whole thing. Nixon was many things but he was not a coward. Using illness, even legitimate illness, to inspire pity would have been anathema to him. Nixon hated weakness, particularly in himself.
Trump, on the other hand, is a coward. I don’t know what his Saturday afternoon trip to Walter Reed Hospital portends. Given his perfectly awful diet, lack of exercise and advanced age, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was something, even something serious. But given Trump’s propensity for lying it wouldn’t surprise me if he was planting a seed in the imagination of the press and public to be used later for some corrupt purpose. The narrative may later be leaked that Trump has some rare and deadly malady in order to create the perception that a bullying Congress of Democrats is trying to impeach our poor, sick president. Who knows?
But that’s the point, we don’t know. With this White House, nothing that issues from it can be trusted or believed. The number of lies that have come out of the executive branch of the American government in the last three and a half years is nothing short of staggering. It is also shameful. A government paid for by the people is beholden to the people. That even the health of the president is something unknowable and can only be a matter for speculation is an outrage. We ought to be able to trust what our government tells us. That we cannot is an enduring scandal.
Nixon’s legitimate illness didn’t stop Watergate, so Trump’s fake illness, if that’s what it is, won’t stop his impeachment. But in the spirit of the run up to the Christmas season, a quote from the justly popular literature of that occasion, one that is appropriate to Trump, occurs to me just now. If Trump is faking an illness and letting it leak slowly to the press in order to gain sympathy, then shame on him. If he is legitimately sick – even seriously so and he should die because of it – then I say he “had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”