Look at the front page of today’s (September 13) New York Times. On the upper right, you will find two articles about Clinton’s health problems. On the inner pages where these articles are continued are three additional articles on the same topic.
Ordinarily, the placement of the first two articles, and the fact that there are five in all, might be occasioned by, say, the start of World War III or an authenticated Elvis sighting. But no: all are about one presidential candidate’s not especially serious health problem.
The illness has been diagnosed as pneumonia, probably what is colloquially called “walking pneumonia,” or in this instance perhaps better, “campaign pneumonia”: not serious enough to cause a victim to take to her bed, but causing coughing, exhaustion, and weakness. According to Wikipedia, walking pneumonia is
a type of pneumonia caused by mycoplasmas, with symptoms similar to but milder than those of bacterial or viral pneumonia. It spreads easily and typically affects school-age children and adults under 40.
So, a Martian might reasonably ask, why the fuss? This fuss has been going on unabated since Clinton exhibited symptoms of unwellness at a 9/11 memorial on Sunday. Someone might parenthetically remark that campaigning itself, especially for a person of 68, is grueling: little sleep, dubious food, and a lot of activity, and Clinton has been going nonstop for over a year; that there are reports that this condition seems to be going around; and that a major activity for a presidential candidate (except, of course, for the germophobic Donald) is shaking hands and being close to lots of people, and people, especially their hands, carry germs.
Stories achieve newsworthiness for a couple of reasons. One is familiar: the unexpected: Man Bites Dog. But there is another, less noted: when a story works as confirmation bias, underscoring what we already believe or want to believe. In this case, the stories about Clinton’s health problems are examples of confirmation bias of two kinds:
- She is sick, she is decrepit, and therefore unpresidential; and,
- She is pathologically secretive, since she refused to make an issue of her health.
Let’s look at both of these conclusions.
First of all, people get sick. This can happen to anyone. Pneumonia has nothing to do with decrepitude. If the condition were chronic, or incurable, or fatal, it would be one thing: it could very well have impact on the victim’s ability to function as president. Then the story would be newsworthy, and a candidate’s keeping such a story secret would be worthy of criticism.
People particularly get sick when there is an epidemic going around and they are exposed to crowds and they are under stress. People’s immune systems don’t function at their best under those conditions, and the fact that a candidate has been soldiering on so well until this moment is, and should be read as, proof of her strength, stamina, and determination rather than her weakness and unfitness for the job she is seeking (as it is being read).
But the word “pneumonia” itself packs a punch: even nowadays, it whispers a kind of ominousness. It sounds lethal, and may be lethal for people already in bad health. But this is not the case with Clinton. So the scare is irrelevant, yet it still seems potent.
Once upon a time, people feared pneumonia and worried a lot about catching it, even though they didn’t understand how it got caught. You may recall an episode in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Jane go to a party at the mansion of Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley; Jane comes down with a cold. Everyone immediately realizes that she can’t possibly go back home: it would be too dangerous (though nobody exactly says why, everyone knows why). So she is put to bed, where she stays for the next couple of weeks, long enough (conveniently) for her and Bingley to fall in love. The threat of pneumonia is just Austen’s device to get the plot going, but it is a plausible device because readers knew that a cold could turn into something much worse.
That was in the early 19th century, long before antibiotics, which can normally cure the disease. Today pneumonia, particularly in its milder forms in an otherwise vigorous person, is not particularly dangerous, much less newsworthy. Unless.
Unless, that is, it supports the narrative that the candidate is in fact incompetent and weak, and therefore unfit for high office. That might be a presupposition in case a candidate were female, as is in fact the case here. So Clinton’s illness is “newsworthy” because it gives us all the right to believe in what we want to believe – that women are unsuited for important work because they are delicate and so unable to be counted on when it counts.
In the past we have had many presidential candidates and presidents who had much more serious illnesses. They all were middle-aged or older males, who might be expected to have serious conditions, often chronic. His contemporaries knew about the heart failure that contributed to FDR’s early death; Lincoln not only was probably bipolar but likely had Marfan’s Syndrome; Eisenhower, when in office, had a serious heart attack, a stroke, ileitis, and other conditions; Kennedy had Addison’s disease and much more; during the 1960 presidential debate, Nixon was ill with phlebitis (one reason he looked so much worse than JFK). (See an informative article in the Washington Post for more.) But no big deal was made of these chronic and serious conditions.
That is, at least in modern times, because all of the above had one other thing in common: they were men. So their illnesses did not trigger confirmation bias. And so it makes sense to see the media’s obsession with Clinton’s health as less about her health than our prejudices.
On to the second point: the concurrent obsession with Clinton’s “secrecy” over her illness, which had been bothering her, apparently, for a couple of weeks. This, too, increases the “newsworthiness” of the story because it gives apparent confirmation to something we already need to believe about the candidate: she is “secretive.”
Well, look: is there nothing, nothing at all, a candidate may keep private? How much must be revealed in order not to look secretive? In Clinton’s case, the answer is apparently “everything.”
It is odd that there is a great deal we don’t know about Trump and should, but nobody cares terribly – not enough to make the story a three-day-and-counting media event, at any rate. We know only a little about his health: that he apparently “borrowed” medical letterhead from his doctor in order to produce a letter of dubious truthfulness – something that suggests to me that there might well be serious problems lurking behind the healthy glow. Trump “promises” to reveal more about his health shortly, but don’t hold your breath – it may take awhile to borrow more letterhead. Actually that orangeosity doesn’t look so good to me, but then, I am not Trump’s dermatologist.
But everything Clinton does not reveal is grist for the gossip mill. She has no right to hold anything back, and if she tries it will count against her, and we will naturally and properly assume the worst. Women must be open to continual interpretation, and so they must reveal everything, inside and out. If they fail to do so, they are not good women, and a woman with a secret is not a good woman.
So here’s the paradox: by being sick, Clinton is a good woman, but not a good potential president; by being secretive, Clinton is not a good woman. You can’t be both a good woman and a competent human being. Once again, Clinton – who stands in for all of us — can’t win for losing. The double bind strikes once more.