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The health of political leaders

Published : Friday, 16 September, 2016 at 9:44 PM  Count : 301
Syed Badrul Ahsan

The health of political leaders

The health of political leaders

The state of Hillary Clinton's health is today a major issue in American politics. That she stumbled or fainted or felt faint at a ceremony commemorating the victims of 11 September 2001 would not have made headlines were she not a candidate for the highest office in her country. Her condition has now impelled her rival Donald Trump into informing people that a report on his health will soon be there in the public domain.
Clinton is not the first political figure to come under scrutiny on her state of health. Back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan sought the Republican nomination for president, there were concerns about whether, if elected President, he would be up to the job. The difference between him and Clinton, though, is that nowhere in the course of the campaign thirty six years ago was there an image of him collapsing or being helped to his car by security agents. But he was seventy and would be the oldest man to serve in the White House. He did complete two terms as President. In the final years of his life, he suffered from Alzheimer's, so much so that at one point, invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton, he had absolutely no recollection of his having served as America's leader.
Pakistan's Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan nearly died of severe illness in 1968, the very year in which his acolytes were busy celebrating his ten years in power as a decade of progress. The President's illness was a tightly kept secret and only those peopling the corridors of power knew about it. The impression which went out to the country --- and it was an era of strict censorship --- was that Ayub Khan was in control. He was not. Neither was Abdul Jabbar Khan, the National Assembly Speaker who should have been in charge as acting President. It was army chief Yahya Khan who ran the show, until Ayub recovered. The physical strains Ayub Khan went through probably hastened his death, nevertheless. He died in April 1974.
The health of political leaders

The health of political leaders

In early 1960s India, the American journalist Welles Hangen raised legitimate worries with his reflections on who would administer the country after Jawaharlal Nehru passed on. Titled 'After Nehru, Who?' the article noted that India's founder-prime minister was in his late seventies and was in frail health. Having dominated India's politics for as long as anyone could remember, Nehru had clearly not prepared anyone for the succession, which was a worry. By early 1964, he was in a worse state of health and would die in May of the year. His successor Lal Bahadur Shastri appeared to be in good health, but when he passed away suddenly in Tashkent in January 1966, soon after initialing a deal with Pakistan's Ayub Khan, questions began to be raised about his health record. But by then it was too late.
A politician with serious health problems was President John F. Kennedy. His perennial back pain almost always killed him in his years in the White House and was a constant reason for doctors to administer high-dose drugs that would hold him up. In public, Kennedy always put on a brave face. In private, his physical sufferings were acute. That was not something that afflicted men like Richard Nixon, his rival at the 1960 election who would go on to win the presidency in 1968. But Nixon did develop phlebitis soon after resigning the presidency in August 1974 and would stay in hospital for a long stretch of time.
The health of political leaders

The health of political leaders

Reports and rumours about illnesses in high places were often a staple of Soviet politics, especially in the aftermath of the death of the long-serving Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. He was succeeded by the very intellectual Yuri Andropov, who would serve only fifteen months in office before succumbing to mortality. Andropov was succeeded by an equally frail and wheezy Konstantin Chernenko, who served as Soviet leader for barely thirteen months before dying, prompting the rise of the relatively young and dynamic Mikhail Gorbachev to power in March 1985. Through the 1970s, reports in the western media speculated on the death or imminent death of such Chinese figures as Mao Zedong. It was becoming clear that both Mao and Zhou En-lai were declining in health. Zhou died in April 1976, followed by Mao a few months later.
One of the best kept health secrets relates to Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He was in an advanced stage of cancer as India moved inexorably and violently to partition in the mid-1940s. Public knowledge of Jinnah's affliction would certainly have altered the course of history, may even have prevention the creation of Pakistan. But he and his doctor managed to keep his illness from the public eye. Not a soul would know about the speedy physical decline of Pakistan's founding father. Jinnah finally succumbed to cancer on 11 September 1948, thirteen months after he had created his country.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were relatively healthy politicians. Other than going through an operation for his gall bladder in 1972, Bangladesh's founder suffered from no perceptible or serious malady. In 1971, Bhutto had an operation for hernia and till his execution in 1979 lived a healthy life.
Illness has not prevented some politicians from exercising decisive leadership both in their countries and on the global stage. Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from debilitating polio which confined him to a wheelchair. In that state, he served as President of the United States for twelve years, between 1933 and 1945, before dying even as World War Two was drawing to a close.
And, yes, there is at least the instance of one politician whose periodic depressions removed him from public life. Chosen to be George McGovern's running mate on the Democratic team at the 1972 US presidential election, Thomas Eagleton was soon revealed to be a politician with a history of hospitalization for depression. He was replaced by Sargent Shriver. The McGovern-Shriver team was buried in the Nixon-Agnew landslide.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a brief history of ailments and politicians, or ailments related to politicians. In this era of intense public scrutiny of politicians, of their personal lives and of their public positions on the issues, one wonders if Hillary Clinton can convince voters she is ready to be America's next President.
Fingers need to be kept crossed.r
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor,
The Daily Observer










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