Dr Sean Conley, in one of his appearances outside the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – where Donald Trump received his treatment for coronavirus – put his best diplomatic foot forward. What was the president’s mental fitness? We should look at ‘the tweets’ as a gauge, he replied.
So I did. “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life”, was the latest. “We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago.”
Alongside a video clip of the superhuman presidential slayer of all known diseases wheezing on his return to the White House, this was as alarming as the next message: “It is reported that the Media is upset because I got into a secure vehicle to say thank you to the many fans and supporters who were standing outside of the hospital. If I didn’t do it, Media would say RUDE!!!”
John Major’s remark came to mind, that every time he saw one particularly rabidly anti-European Tory MP approaching, he could hear “the flapping white coats”. White coats at the White House.
But actually, Trump ill is no different to Trump well. It may even be an improvement, in that for a brief period he wasn’t able to send tweets and announce some apparently insane policy to tackle Covid-19 and ‘MAGA’ (not another Trump ailment but ‘Make America Great Again’).
Although, to fill the void, his campaign spokeswoman vied with the Tweeter-in-Chief himself, attacking Biden for not falling ill. “The president has experience now fighting the coronavirus,” she told Fox News. “Those first-hand experiences, Joe Biden, he doesn’t have those.”
A few years ago the doctor-turned-politician David Owen wrote a fascinating book, In Sickness and in Power, suggesting that many of the worst mistakes made by heads of government were caused by them being physically or mentally unwell.
Since most political leaders are old, like Trump, sickness is a common condition. And not just the very old: the longest-serving American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected at the age of 50 but with paralytic polio, able to walk only very a few steps while wearing iron braces. The wheelchair was never in camera.
Yet Roosevelt was perhaps the most successful president in history. Who in their right mind would not prefer him to the present incumbent, not only in tackling Covid-19 but also Putin, Xi and our very own Johnson, heir to Churchill, who was so prone to illness that he never travelled without his doctor?
I came to a similar conclusion when writing my recent biography of Ernest Bevin, the great post-war Labour foreign secretary. The chain-smoking Bevin was so ill with angina, haemorrhoids and fistula in his last year in office that he spent 85 out of 153 days in hospital.
But, said the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, “Ernie Bevin, operating at considerably less than full efficiency, was more effective than any of his possible successors was likely to be”. Herbert Morrison, a disaster as his successor, proved the point.
Another doctor, Norman Ohler, has written an even more remarkable book on this theme. Entitled Blitzed, it reveals the Third Reich’s extraordinary relationship with drugs, including cocaine, heroin, morphine and, above all, methamphetamines (aka crystal meth). It turns out that Hitler was on a perpetual high by the end of the war, and an absolute junkie with ruined veins by the time he retreated to the last of his bunkers in 1945.
But would he have behaved much differently had he not been so high on drugs? Unlikely, given the decisions he took throughout the 1930s, before he was blitzed.
The best course is to choose leaders who are apparently sane and sensible, then hope for the best in sickness or in health. Which is just as well, since with a bit of luck the American people are about to elect a 78-year-old who stumbles and stutters, and who in his first debate with Trump couldn’t even recall where he had been to college.
But which non-populist wouldn’t prefer an Oval Office inhabited by Biden sick rather than Trump fit?