Tuesday, September 13, 2016


“Hilary Clinton has shown that any woman can be President, as long as your husband did it first.”
—Comedian Michelle Wolf’s eleventh-ranked joke in UK TV channel Dave’s recent “Funniest Joke of the Fringe” awards in Edinburgh
In a special Doctor Who episode broadcast on BBC on Christmas Day 2005, the earth is invaded and held for ransom by the Sycorax. The newly regenerated Doctor (played by the marvelous David Tennant) eventually rouses from a post-regeneration slumber to send them packing. As they are leaving, however, they are blasted out of the sky on the orders of UK Prime Minister Harriet Jones (played by the wonderful Penelope Wilton). She is concerned that, if allowed simply to leave, they will spread the word about earth and invite more invasions. The Doctor is furious since the erstwhile invaders were leaving peacefully. This prime minister, a former parliament back-bencher from Flydale North whom he helped usher into office in a previous episode, is clearly too hawkish for his taste. He may not like her decision but, she tells him imperiously, there is nothing he can do about it. On the contrary, he assures her, he can bring her down with a mere six words. He then makes good on his threat by walking over to her aide and whispering softly in his ear, “Don’t you think she looks tired?” Sure enough, in no time her political fortunes have fallen and she is out of office.

In politics there has long been a perceived correlation between physical health and political health. It is as though one’s physical state is a metaphor for whether one’s star is falling or rising. Particularly with presidents, it is a well-worn media trope to observe towards the end of a chief executive’s final term how much grayer the hair and more wrinkled the face—as if the office itself has sapped the officeholder of his youth and vitality. Before any of them get to that point, however, politicians of the television age know that they need to be seen as healthy and at least somewhat athletic. John Kennedy exuded youth and vigor, even though we later learned that he was plagued with chronic back pain. Ronald Reagan was frequently seen chopping wood and riding a horse. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were seen jogging, and Bush also liked to cycle. President Obama sometimes plays a round of basketball when he is not golfing. It is somehow—though not necessarily logically—reassuring to see our top leader looking fit and well.

In a rare instance, being fit and active can backfire against a politician. During the 2004 presidential campaign the Bush campaign managed to use footage of John Kerry windsurfing—or so the established lore goes—to imprint an indelible image of him as a flip-flopper in a campaign ad. That is the exception, rather than rule.

Neither of the current main presidential nominees is likely to be filmed windsurfing or jogging but, on the other hand, health is usually not an issue for candidates unless they are at least well into their 70s. Yet health is now an issue in the election campaign. Just as a fringe element seemed bent on the notion that President Obama was born abroad (a somewhat less fringe contingent thought merely that there was something embarrassing on his birth certificate, which for a long time the president seemed reluctant to make public), there has been a persistent faction of people convinced that Hillary Clinton was covering up some health problem. While evidence was scant, the notion was not completely whacko. It is in the public record that, like many people, she suffers from allergies and that she takes medication for hypothyroidism. She has had at least two cases of deep vein thrombosis, presumably from her longtime extensive schedule of air travel. Most notably, at the end of 2012 while at home with a reported stomach virus, she fell and suffered a concussion and was hospitalized. Some were initially skeptical at the time because the incident conveniently prevented her from appearing before Congress to talk about the Benghazi terror attack. Skepticism abated when her absence from work became prolonged. In 2014 her husband said the injury “required six months of very serious work to get over.”

Because Clinton has a pattern—from the Benghazi incident to her private email server—of saying things that later turn out not to have been true, a lot of people do not give her the benefit of the doubt on anything she says, including about the state of her health. As long ago as 1996, in a famous column penned by conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, she was called “a congenital liar.” He cited her explanations for, among other things, conveniently missing records from the Rose Law Firm and making a 10,000 percent profit in commodities trading as Arkansas’s first lady.

Of course, the most notable raising of questions about Clinton’s health and stamina has come from her opponent, Donald Trump. He has talked about the issue for some time now and, according to cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame), this is an example of masterful persuasion technique. According to Adams, the public and the press have been so primed by all the talk over so much time that, once a health-related event did occur, it seemed much bigger than it would have otherwise. Adams, who ostensibly supports Clinton while continually praising Trump’s persuasion skills, went so far on Sunday as to declare the presidential race effectively over.

It is difficult to imagine someone as experienced and talented as Clinton with so many resources and so much money at her disposal—not to mention the single most skilled politician of a generation as her partner—to crash and burn at this point in her career. Yet has any candidate in a position like Trump’s ever been so lucky to have his odds-on-favorite opponent run smack into such a triple whammy like Clinton’s trust/honest issue, her health issue and the major gaffe of calling millions of Americans “deplorable” (plus a lot of other epithets) all in one weekend? I did not realize how bad it was until I heard Cokie Roberts actually say on National Public Radio yesterday that some Democrats are beginning to talk about replacing her.

Lots more could certainly happen between now and November, and it is way too soon to declare either candidate a certain winner. Perhaps, though, the most worrying thing for Clinton has to be the strange change in Trump’s behavior. The man, who has seemingly never had a random thought that he did not enunciate unfiltered, for once did not squander his opponent’s bad news cycle by stepping all over it with his own gaffe or inappropriate remark. He did not utter some offensive insult. Instead, his reaction was the most devastating possible one the Democrats could have feared.

He simply wished her a speedy recovery.

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