Healthy Obligations

Even the President of the United States, it appears, is not free of an obligation to be healthy. Society is even conveniently provided with the means of policing him, in the form of ample news stories about his latest physical. The Guardian had three stories up about it at the same time! A British paper, I would add! I don’t think any American papers cover the Queen’s health in such exhaustive detail.

A quick perusal of front pages and “health” sections at some major newspapers netted (warnings on all of these links for health/food policing, sizeism, ableism, don’t read the comments, &tc.):

Barack Obama’s medical: how does he compare to the rest of us?

Cigarettes and alcohol and Obama

Give the guy a cigarette break

Obama in excellent health, doctor says, but he should quit smoking

Obama’s other health downfall — pie

Desserts to Blame for Obama’s Higher Cholesterol

Spoonfuls of Southern Cooking for Obama

What’s interesting and horrific about all of these stories is that they go well beyond “the President had a physical and was pronounced fit for duty.” They provide explicit and detailed medical information about medications, injuries, his blood pressure and pulse, and recommendations made by his doctor.

Apparently HIPAA does not apply to Presidents.

And apparently Presidents are subject to the health police just like the rest of us. The President should eat less pie! The President should quit smoking! The President should use a different exercise routine! The President should be mocked for eating arugula! All of these things are repeated, with varying degrees of force, in the news articles about his physical. Indeed, many of those articles are being used by their authors to launch little screeds on their own agendas (anti-pie, anti-smoking, exercise prescriptionism, anti-arugula). In the eyes of the media, evidently, the President’s health is not just an object of public consumption, it is a teachable moment packed with moral object lessons.

Here’s what I think about the President’s health: It’s not my business, except in some very special circumstances.

I assume that if the President does have health concerns, he can deal with them privately, and he has the right to do so. I would certainly never dictate what he should or should not do because I am not the President. I am not living in his body. I don’t know what kind of needs his body has, and can’t presume to imagine that I do know. His medical appointments are his own affair. His nutrition is his business. His medications are a personal matter.

There are certain situations in which the President’s health would become a matter of concern to me. If, for example, he was in a coma, that would be something I would like to know, because I have worries about the continuity of government. If something was temporarily preventing him from making sound decisions, I would prefer that he not be holding the nuclear football, but I don’t particularly need to know what might be impairing his judgment. Indeed, I don’t even need to know why other people are temporarily taking over Presidential duties; I just need to know that things are being handled appropriately.

I do not need to know President Obama’s blood pressure. I don’t need to know his cholesterol levels. I don’t need to know about what medications he takes, where his sports injuries are, what he eats and when, or even how tall he is. None of this information is relevant to being the President of the United States.

And all of these reports salivating over the details of the President’s medical record fill me with new awe that FDR managed to conceal many of the aspects of his disability. A different era, indeed.

Given the fact that not only the US media but the international media is covering the results of the Presidential physical in such graphic detail, I am curious to know if readers in other countries have noticed similar trends in terms of mediasplosions over the health of their heads of state1. Is it unusual to see such coverage, or par for the course?

  1. It’s not just heads of state here who are subject to such intense scrutiny, of course; here in California, Senator Pat Wiggins has been mercilessly pursued by the media over her health issues. This includes rampant speculation about the kinds of medical issues she might be experiencing and whether or not she is able to serve as a Senator.

13 Comments

  1. Sadly this kind of thing has been happening to our prime minister Gordon Brown for some time now, in fact the level of ableism aimed at him has been shocking even by the ableist standards of most of the mainstream media. He has been mocked over his visual impairment an bullied into revealing whether he is taking anti-depressants or not. Both things have been suggested as factors which make him unfit for his job, despite there being no real reason to believe this. I wish people would stop making personal attacks on someone whose politics they disagree with , on parts of their life which have no relevance, and focus on actual policies instead. Not so long ago we had a blind home secretary (David Blunkett), who, although many disagreed with his politics, was nevertheless an intelligent and able politician but the media never stopped making fun of his visual impairment which I really think undermined his public credibility, absolutely disgraceful treatment. Sorry this is a bit long but this post has really hit a nerve as I’ve been seeing far too much of this kind of ableism and body policing dressed up as ‘news’ and ‘public interest’ recently. I don’t subscribe to the idea that any figure in the public eye immediately forfeits any right to privacy, respect or basic human decency when it comes to their treatment in the press.

  2. Regarding Gordon Brown, further to Rainbow’s point, I recall the recent incident in which he wrote a hand-written note to a fallen soldier’s mother, and apparently misspelled his name. The handwriting was messy, quite possibly as a result of his visual impairment (he is blind in one eye and has reduced vision in the other). However, although some papers jumped on his “crass” mistake initially, when it was revealed that his disability may have played a part, much of the press rallied round him and condemned the earlier attacks.

    Regarding the point about the Queen’s health in the original post, the Queen plays a very limited role in the British political scene. Her (or his, if it’s a king) role is to provide some sort of regal dignity, so acts of Parliament are made in her name but her powers are hers in theory only. The real power lies in the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and Parliament, particularly the House of Commons. The powers known as Royal Prerogative are exercised by the Prime Minister. Unlike the US President, he or she cannot veto a bill passed by Parliament; in theory, the queen can, but that power hasn’t been used any time this century or last.

  3. Maybe i haven’t been paying attention here (in aotearoa new zealand) it hasn’t been much of an issue (or maybe i just don’t read that sort of news much, but i don’t think its been very visible in that case). With the exception that people comment on certain members being fat sometimes, which i suppose i bad enough, but there’s not a huge level of scrutiny. Last time some MP got into the news for health reasons as far as i remember was when rod donald died unexpectly at a young age.
    But then theres not really much of a culture of caring what out politicians lives are like outside of parliment. I couldn’t name the present or previous PMs partners for instance, and i doubt many could.

  4. Yes, Obama’s health made the news here in the Netherlands, too. And, indeed, our prime minister’s health is national property, too. When he had a foot infection or something like that in I think 2006, it was in the news for weeks.

  5. You know what is sad is, with the amount of ablism is society today, I doubt that a visibly disabled person could get elected president. The press would have a field day with any candidate’s disability and that would be all they would focus on. I mean, how many members of congress/the senate are disabled?

  6. I mean, how many members of congress/the senate are disabled?

    Wikipedia has a list http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_physically_disabled_politicians#United_States , I have no idea how complete it is, though. A pretty significant portion of that list are people who were injured in combat.

  7. There is the governor of New York, who replaced Spitzer. He has shown ableist people that blind politicians can do scandal just as well as sighted ones! (or maybe it’s just New Yorkers. *ducks*)

    I remember watching this on TDS and being creeped out – TDS covered it because others did, and I’m like, HIPAA help?

    And word on FDR. Not to mention JFK – what would be more shocking – the women or the back problems? (And pre-20th century prezzes… Jackson dueled, someone took a bath…)

    Why are Americans so obsessed with the irrelevant parts of our elected officials’ lives?* (Or non-elected ones – if I watched golf, how would Tiger’s affairs effect me?)

    I remember thinking during ’98-2000 and the impeachment mess that if Clinton was in trouble for adultery, than certainly my father was going to jail any day now. (I mean, Clinton was just prez! My dad is a cop!)

    *Oh, I just thought of an answer. So we know who we want to have a beer with. Yes, it would be nice if Obama liked the X-files too, but that’s not why I voted for him!

  8. If I recall correctly, Bush’s physical results were released as well. So it’s not new.

    But I was thinking that the First Lady just launched an anti-obesity campaign – so are her physical results going to be out?

    (She’s probably the first to mention cheaper fruits and vegs instead of just “exercise”)

  9. The results of Obama’s physical even made it into the Chronicle Herald, the Halifax/provincial newspaper here. The article combined with photo took up about half a page, and included all the details – both cholesterol levels, weight, pulse rate, blood pressure, everything. And none of it is anyone’s business – if there was something that would effect his ability to do his job that would be one thing (though I still don’t think the public would need any actual details, just something like “sick, can’t work any more”), but other than that? The public doesn’t freaking need to know, nor should they be told, IMHO.

    It makes me, too, wonder where HIPAA went, because when I answered phones for CIGNA there wasn’t a single thing emphasised more than HIPAA.

  10. a quick note about HIPAA (which for non US folks, is the US health privacy law which prevents health providers from releasing personally identifiable health information) – it does apply to presidents as it applies to all other patients in the US. However Obama, like all other patients, has the option to waive his HIPAA rights and allow release and publication of his health information. (Similarly, I could get my entire medical record and send it to the LA Times, or even instruct my health provider to send it to the LA Times, although it seems extremely unlikely they’d be interested.)

    What Meloukhia was raising is not that the HIPAA law has an explicit exception for sitting presidents, but the expectation in the US that the president will waive and publicize his (her? someday?) health information because “the public has a right to know.” If Obama had refused to waive his rights, I imagine there would have been a huge uproar – what is he hiding??? So while Obama technically has the legal protection of the law, the general expectation that the public deserves info on his health overrides that.

    So there’s been no change to or violation of HIPAA here, and the rest of the US can rest assured that HIPPA, with all its benefits and flaws, still applies in full force.

  11. This stuff about the President is most interesting. I remember hearing some news some time ago about a President having a medical, and being surprised that it was even discussed. The post and comments here give me some insight into that, and I find it sad that anyone in that office essentially has no choice about revealing their medical status, given that a lack of information would be regarded as infinitely sinister.

    A former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, was hounded by the press re: her appearance (she wore a wig and had facial puffiness from steroid treatment), and concerning her decision-making, when she was having treatment for (what she then described as) a benign tumour of the brain.

    It was recently revealed (via a Julie Walters feature-length TV drama, and surrounding publicity) that the tumour was in fact malignant, but that Mowlam chose to describe it as benign precisely because she knew that the presence of cancer would give the press and her political enemies free rein to criticise her mental competence and fitness for her post.

    She was already a unique political character, and a controversial figure at a time when the Peace Process was fragile, so she was under immense scrutiny to begin with, and being a woman in high office arguably added to this. In other words, a perfect storm of factors that could be – and were – used to undermine her credibility, despite her considerable achievements and contribution to the Peace Process. I don’t blame her one bit for her decisions in relation to her health.

  12. Actually, a counter-example, which I believe came up in the UK press as a response to the controversy about whether Gordon Brown was prescribed anti-depressants, was that a Scandanavian leader suffered from a mental health problem, took some time off, and then returned to his duties when fit to do so. All with public knowledge, and the public were fine with it. I normally hate posting this kind of vague thing, but I don’t recall which country it was and my Google-fu is lacking tonight… the point, anyway, was that a leader with depression might be considered shameful or something to hide in one country, but be accepted and understood as just another illness requiring compassion and understanding in another….

  13. @ Abby Jean – “If Obama had refused to waive his rights, I imagine there would have been a huge uproar – what is he hiding???”

    His Kenyan birth certificate tattoo. 😉

    The release is so loaded. Yes, he chose to waive his HIPAA rights, but will people look at this (ignoring that we got Bush’s health reports as well) and go “I don’t want the government to see my medical records! No socialism!”