By now, we all know the story: On September 11, while leaving a commemorative service in New York City, Hillary Clinton suffered a moment of physical distress. What you believe truly happened the moment she left the memorial will depend largely upon the websites which you visit. Was it a stumble? A full-on fall? Did she faint? And was Clinton, when she emerged from her daughter Chelsea’s apartment several hours later, actually replaced by a body double meant to get her through the rest of election cycle (and possibly a presidency)?
It’s likely that we’ll never know the answers to any of the above questions — especially the one about the body double, unless we can score an invite to the Bilderberg Group’s next party — but here’s what’s important: Whether Hillary Clinton collapsed due to dehydration or overheating or her recently diagnosed pneumonia doesn’t matter much. It’s especially irrelevant when used to ladder up to questions about whether the former Secretary of State will be able to lead the country. Pneumonia is an illness people have, treat, and get over. Wild speculation about Clinton’s condition, however, could have some very real effects.
Before we unpack this episode in context of the campaign, let’s talk about pneumonia in general. It’s an illness the public doesn’t actually know much about — even though social media seems awash in opinions about Clinton’s ailment, furious declarations that it might all be a huge lie, loose implications that a temporary illness somehow makes her unfit to lead, and tweets of solidarity.
So what is pneumonia? According to CNN — which ran an explainer on the disorder soon after Clinton’s physical episode on Sunday — it’s a respiratory infection that makes it difficult to breathe due to liquid entering the lungs. The illness is caused by virus, bacteria, or fungi. It’s especially dangerous, CNN points out, for children. And yes, pneumonia can be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control reports that of the 1,000,000 cases of the illness each year, approximately 50,000 end in the death of the patient. The CDC also points out that pneumonia can be treated with rest (a luxury Clinton doesn’t have right now), fluids, and, in some cases, antibiotics (which Clinton is taking). Is the disease serious for someone over 65? Yes. Is it something that makes one unfit to perform their job, whatever that job might me? Only if they die.
In order to get more insight into Clinton’s diagnosis, we spoke to Patrick McCarty, a Virginia-based nurse practitioner who works primarily with the geriatric population (that’s anyone over 60, so the title fits every candidate in the race). The best cure for pneumonia, including the “walking” variety is “rest at home or a day off,” McCarty says. “But as we know with Clinton, she doesn’t really have that option.”
“Community-acquired pneumonia,” he notes, “is like having the flu. There are so many strains of pneumonia and she’s talking to so many people, it’s bound to happen. She just drew the short straw. Trump could have easily caught pneumonia. He still might.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Priyanka Wali, a San Francisco-based physician we contacted for a second opinion — because you always need a second opinion in medicine.
“It’s not a debilitating chronic condition,” Wali says, “but an ailment that can be resolved with rest and antibiotics. Fainting isn’t necessarily a sign of severity; any stress to the body can cause someone to pass out.”
But would it keep someone from doing her job, even if that job is ruling the free world?
“If someone came into my office, and asked me if their career was over due to a bout of pneumonia, I’d think that was silly,” Wali continues. “I’d tell them they were sick, and that, fortunately, we have antibiotics. Having pneumonia doesn’t mean everything stops. You can absolutely work from home, although you may feel more tired. Considering their grueling schedules and the number of people they meet, I’m surprised more candidates don’t get sick.”
Of course, candidates might actually get sick more often than we know, but would they be wise to admit it when they do? Is the concern about Clinton’s pneumonia really a demand for a leader who won’t fall ill or a way for people to continue focusing on Clinton as a person instead of approaching her policies? Jason Teramoto, a political consultant who spent ten years working in the U.S. House of Representatives with Congressman Pete Stark, told us that focusing on Clinton’s illness is a way to mask a bigger issue.
“Concentrating on Secretary Clinton’s health is a smokescreen,” Teramoto says. “She’s suffering from something many healthy 60-plus Americans suffer from and, frankly, it’s a masked way of folks saying ‘she is a woman.’ It’s a misogynistic, chauvinistic attack. This is a woman who’s been involved in bureaucracy at the federal level, at the state level, at the municipal level, and at the community level. She comes with more qualifications than the last five presidents we’ve had.”
Teramoto’s statement underscores how easily we forget Clinton’s background and experience when she’s painted as a frail 68-year-old who can’t stand up on her own in public. These are mental gymnastics we don’t even notice ourselves performing until someone points out that lots of people (people you know, even!) have become overheated or dehydrated or “passed out from the flu” and we still think they can do their jobs.
And that’s where the trouble comes: Clinton’s pneumonia puts her in a double bind. On one hand, she can try to take some time off (although The Washington Post reports that her symptoms may not clear until October) and make herself an easy target. On the other, she could continue what she’s been doing and power through, possibly making herself or others sick in the process.
“Candidates listen to what the public says,” Teramoto explains, “and if they hear or read, that they aren’t out and present enough, they overcompensate. And what does that do? If you’re not feeling good and you go out into the world, you’re going to wear yourself down that much more. There is a level of performance that voters expect from candidates that is completely unrealistic.”
All of this begs the question, what chance does Clinton have to recover if every headline is about her illness? Some are calling her out for not coming forward with her symptoms earlier, but she’s surely aware of the toll that might have taken on her public image. That only moments after, we’d be reading headlines and wondering whether a woman who could get pneumonia could ever lead this great nation?
“If it affects her ability to do her job, fine, let people know why,” Teramoto says of Clinton’s choice to not disclose her ailment earlier. “Past that, announcing her illness preemptively would have everyone saying, ‘here we go with the excuses.’”
As someone who’s been on the campaign trail before, Teramoto knows that what we put our possible future leaders through, and he feels like it’s unrealistic.
“The candidate has to be at all places at all times,” he explains. “On an average basis they’re getting four to five hours of sleep, and it’s not continuous. They’re going to be lucky if they have one good meal a day. I travel from SF to LA and I get allergies. Hell, I get allergies from different pollens just traveling around the Bay Area. Clinton is traveling upwards of 10,000 miles a week.
“You have to remember, this is a candidate that has put herself out there to answer real questions from real people every day. This is what we ask for in a President. We want someone to relate to us. Fine, you’ve got a candidate that comes onto your local news affiliate to talk about fracking in Pennsylvania, racial injustice in Detroit, drought mitigation in California, and immigration in Texas. But put yourself, as a voter, in position to relate to them: You’re going to get sick, you’re going to take a day off work, you’re going to get food poisoning, you’re going to get allergies. you’re going to get rundown from from running around the country.”
As Teramoto illustrates, though we want to relatable leaders, we also ask them to be superhuman — which is the opposite of relatable.
The deeper truth is that this latest barrage against Clinton is loaded with hypocritical undertones. It was played more cute and folksy when John McCain (aged 72 in 2008) joked about his age, but Clinton having a coughing fit was headline news, despite a note from her doctor (running for president, it’s just like trying to get out of sixth period!). As Keith Olbermann points out in a piece for GQ, when these concerns are coming from “the campaign of someone who will not denounce or even distance himself from supporters who often shout that she [Clinton] should be killed or hanged or shot for treason.”
In his piece, Olbermann also points to the fact that Rudy Giuliani, a man who has made pointed remarks about Clinton hiding her health condition, didn’t hold himself to the same high standards that he now seems to have for candidates, even as a recipient of Clinton’s perfunctory good will, when he suffered prostate cancer.
“Rudy, do you even remember when you ran for president yourself starting in 2006—when you were still considered a short-term survivor of prostate cancer? Do you remember anybody saying it was disqualifying in any way? Do you remember anybody saying that the possibility of recurrence or the chance that you might have cancer anywhere else in your body might make you unfit to seek the office? Did any of your opponents have the gall to attack you over your own health? Did any of your opponents do that when you were first diagnosed? While you were running for the Senate seat for New York? Whom were you running against again?
Oh, right! Hillary Clinton!”
Anyone claiming that Clinton’s hiding of her illness is in some way dishonest, cowardly, or un-presidential may want to look to the past for a precedent. In a piece published by The New York Times, Alan Rappeport details the fascinating history of candidates hiding their medical conditions, including Theodore Roosevelt, who delivered a speech with a gunshot wound, Woodrow Wilson, who led the country even after suffering several strokes, and Ronald Reagan who kept his position despite the fact that he suffered from both cancer and, later, memory loss.
No matter how many panicked headlines you may read, it’s hard to find evidence that Clinton should drop out or couldn’t — for some reason clear to us right now — handle the responsibilities set out for the President of the United States.
So perhaps we ought not condemn Hillary Clinton for the very relatable act of falling ill. Let’s not blame her for not calling a press conference about her illness. Let’s not pretend to wonder whether she can finish out her campaign, nor whether she can stay healthy if she wins. Let’s not demand she drop out of the race. She got sick. Knock her all you want, but knock her over the issues. Because there are much bigger issues to think about.
But just to put all our minds at ease, we asked Patrick McCarty whether Clinton should drop out of the race because of pneumonia.
“Absolutely 100 percent not,” he replied with a laugh.