Michele Bachmann’s “Stress-Related” “Incapacitating” Headaches Are Fair Game
A Presidential candidate's medical condition is entirely relevant to their fitness for office.
The Daily Caller is out today with a piece quoting several anonymous former Bachmann staffers regarding what appears to be, if they’re being accurate, a fairly serious medical condition that the Minnesota Congresswoman suffers from:
The Minnesota Republican frequently suffers from stress-induced medical episodes that she has characterized as severe headaches. These episodes, say witnesses, occur once a week on average and can “incapacitate” her for days at time. On at least three occasions, Bachmann has landed in the hospital as a result.
“She has terrible migraine headaches. And they put her out of commission for a day or more at a time. They come out of nowhere, and they’re unpredictable,” says an adviser to Bachmann who was involved in her 2010 congressional campaign. “They level her. They put her down. It’s actually sad. It’s very painful.”
Bachmann’s medical condition wouldn’t merit public attention, but for the fact she is running for president. Some close to Bachmann fear she won’t be equal to the stress of the campaign, much less the presidency itself.
“When she gets ’em, frankly, she can’t function at all. It’s not like a little thing with a couple Advils. It’s bad,” the adviser says. “The migraines are so bad and so intense, she carries and takes all sorts of pills. Prevention pills. Pills during the migraine. Pills after the migraine, to keep them under control. She has to take these pills wherever she goes.”
To staff, Bachmann has implausibly blamed the headaches on uncomfortable high-heel shoes, but those who have worked closely with her cite stress, a busy schedule and anything going badly for Bachmann as causes.
Alice Stewart, a spokeswoman for Bachmann, said “she suffers from migraines and they’re under control with medicine.” Stewart contested descriptions of the episodes as “incapacitating” Bachmann but did not specify how the descriptions were wrong. “The information you have is incorrect,” Stewart said. She declined to discuss Bachmann’s hospital visits at all, saying, “I’m not going to go into her medical history.”
There is some anecdotal evidence at least that her spokeswoman’s comments aren’t telling the whole story:
On the evening of May 13, 2010, Bachmann flew to Los Angeles for a series of political and fundraising events. In part because of complications with her flight schedule, Bachmann’s mood plunged. During the entire six-hour flight, she was desperately sick from headaches. (Perry, Bachmann lead in July Daily Caller/Conservative Home tracking poll)
Her husband, Marcus Bachmann, met his wife at LAX and ushered her to a nearby urgent care center. Though Bachmann managed to attend several events in California, including an appearance before a California chapter of the Eagle Forum and a fundraiser in Palm Springs, she struggled through the weekend, in pain throughout.
On October 19, 2010, Bachmann fell apart at a Greenwich, Conn., fundraiser at the home of Craig Stevenson, CEO of Diamond S Shipping. She was put in a bed at Stevenson’s home and later checked into an urgent care facility near LaGuardia Airport.
Back in February 2006, Bachmann checked into the hospital for what a press release called “an appendicitis attack,” according to an archive of her website. “Michele felt very well immediately after the surgery but then suffered from complications, including nausea and intense migraines,” the press release reads.
Of particular concern to some around her is the significant amount of medication Bachmann takes to address her condition.
The former aide says Bachmann’s congressional staff is “constantly” in contact with her doctors to tweak the types and amounts of medicine she is taking. Marcus Bachmann helps her manage the episodes.
The reaction around the blogosphere has been interesting. Robert Stacy McCain and Jim Hoft seem convinced that The Daily Caller is engaging in an effort to smear conservatives in general and, in this case, Bachmann in particular. Of course, as Don Surber points out, the author of the Bachmann piece, Jonathan Strong, was also the DC reporter who broke the Journolist story last year. Ed Morrissey, meanwhile, raises legitimate concerns about the anonymity of the sources for the story. However,while it is important to take that anonymity into account, that doesn’t mean the story should be dismissed out of hand. In the same post linked above, Surber says that if these reports are true Bachmann is finished, and Rick Moran says, correctly, that her campaign needs to get on top of them immediately if they aren’t:
The Bachmann campaign better get on top of this story quickly. And they have to be a little more forthcoming than Ms. Stewart’s evasive answers. People will forgive politicians just about anything – except if they feel they are hiding something.
There is always a fine line in Presidential campaigns over what is and isn’t relevant. Over the past few campaign cycles, the media and partisans have attempted to gain access to candidates college records, as if what grades someone got in an Econ 101 class 25 years in the past is relevant to what kind of President they might be. Medical records are a different story, though, because they could contain information that goes directly to the question of the ability of the candidate to perform the job of being President of the United States. This seems to me to be especially true in an era where a President is potentially required to make split second decisions under a tremendous amount of stress.
This has not always been the case, of course, throughout American history. Joshua Green, for example, links to a 2002 Atlantic cover story about the medical troubles of John F. Kennedy, most of which did not become public until well after his death:
Concealing one’s true medical condition from the voting public is a time-honored tradition of the American presidency. William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia in April of 1841, after only one month in office, was the first Chief Executive to hide his physical frailties. Nine years later Zachary Taylor’s handlers refused to acknowledge that cholera had put the President’s life in jeopardy; they denied rumors of illness until he was near death, in July of 1850, sixteen months into his presidency. During Grover Cleveland’s second term, in the 1890s, the White House deceived the public by dismissing allegations that surgeons had removed a cancerous growth from the President’s mouth; a vulcanized-rubber prosthesis disguised the absence of much of Cleveland’s upper left jaw and part of his palate. The public knew nothing about the implant until one of the President’s physicians revealed it in 1917, nine years after Cleveland’s death.
In the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all, to one degree or another, held back the full truth about medical difficulties that could have jeopardized their hold on the Oval Office. Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1919 that made him merely a figurehead during the last year and a half of his term. After Coolidge’s sixteen-year-old son died of blood poisoning, in the summer of 1924, Coolidge himself struggled with a clinical depression that made inactivity and passivity the principal features of his Administration. It has been well known for some time that Roosevelt went to great lengths to conceal how physically incapacitated he had been rendered by polio. If voters had known the truth about his generally deteriorating health in 1944, it is unlikely that they would have re-elected him a third time–but they did not know, and FDR died just three months into his fourth term, in April of 1945. Though Eisenhower was much more open about his health than any of his predecessors, the full disclosure of his maladies (including heart disease) in 1956, when he was sixty-six, might have discouraged the country from electing him President again; he had a heart attack during his first term and suffered a number of other medical problems, including a minor stroke, during his second.
The lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history–no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed. Kennedy, like so many of his predecessors, was more intent on winning the presidency than on revealing himself to the public. On one level this secrecy can be taken as another stain on his oft-criticized character, a deception maintained at the potential expense of the citizens he was elected to lead. Yet there is another way of viewing the silence regarding his health–as the quiet stoicism of a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain and distress and performing his presidential (and pre-presidential) duties largely undeterred by his physical suffering. Does this not also speak to his character, but in a more complex way?
Not only the extent of Kennedy’s medical problems but the lengths to which he and his family went to conceal them were significant. According to Bill Walton, a Kennedy family friend, JFK was followed everywhere during the 1960 presidential campaign by an aide with a special bag containing the “medical support” that was needed all the time. When the bag was misplaced during a trip to Connecticut, Kennedy telephoned Governor Abe Ribicoff and said, “There’s a medical bag floating around and it can’t get in anybody’s hands … You have to find that bag.” If the wrong people got hold of it, he said, “it would be murder.” (The bag was recovered.)
The level of secrecy enjoyed by Kennedy and his predecessors is likely no longer possible, and for the most part that’s a good thing. The public doesn’t necessarily need to know about some medical condition a candidate had in the past, unless it’s something like cancer or a heart condition that could be an issue in the future. However, if a candidate is suffering from a medical condition that could impact their health while in office or, more importantly, impact their judgment and their ability to make decisions then it strikes me that this is an entirely relevant topic for the press to ask about, and it serves candidates better to be honest about it rather than to lie. For example, Herman Cain was diagnosed in 2006 with Stage IV colon cancer. He underwent chemotherapy and surgery and his doctors have said he’s cancer free. Cain has spoken openly about the cancer and shared at least some information from his doctors. While I have many, many problems with Cain as a candidate, I do think he’s been correct in being forthright about his medical history rather than trying to hide it.
Is Michele Bachmann’s medical condition a disqualifying point against her? Well, if the allegations are true, then I’d say that I don’t think we want anyone in the Oval Office who is subject to being incapacitated when under stress, but that’s really a matter for the voters to decide. And obviously, my problems with Michele Bachmann go far beyond whatever her medical condition might be. Nonetheless, this strikes me as something that the public deserves to know before they are asked to vote for Bachmann, or any candidate really, not afterwards. (I am reminded of the Seasons 2-4 subplot in The West Wing where it was revealed that President Bartlet had hidden from the public that he was suffering from multiple sclerosis at the time he ran for President.) The Bachmann campaign needs to address these issues now.