When Presidents Hide Health Scares

Hmmm…I wonder why this subject has come to mind. In any case, presidents have a tendency to hide their health concerns from the American public. We take a look at two examples of American presidents who hid health scares.

Woodrow Wilson’s Stroke (1919)

Woodrow and Edith Wilson, June 1920 | Library of Congress

One of the most striking moments of obfuscation from the White House belongs to Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, the president suffered a devastating stroke.

On September 3rd, the president had embarked on a country-wide train trip. He wanted to convince his fellow Americans to support the League of Nations. During the trip, Wilson’s health suffered. He lost his appetite and his asthma began to bother him.

On September 25th, Wilson took a turn for the worse. His wife, Edith, noticed that her husband’s facial muscles were twitching and Wilson complained of nausea and a splitting headache. On September 26th, Wilson’s speaking tour was canceled. On October 2nd, back at the White House, the president suffered a devastating stroke that left him partially paralyzed.

Although news of the president’s stroke began to come out in February 1920, most Americans did not realize its severity. They didn’t realize that—as Wilson struggled to recover—his wife had taken over as de facto president. After all, this was decades before the 25th amendment would put a process in place for what to do when the president is incapacitated.

Edith Wilson, who described her role as a “stewardship” denied that she made any decisions on her own. But she admitted that she decided “what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

Grover Cleveland’s Jaw Surgery (1893)

President Grover Cleveland print, 1884 | Library of Congress

Grover Cleveland, who holds the amusing honor of being the only American president to serve two, non-consecutive terms, also hid his health problems from the nation.

Shortly after his inauguration—his second, that is, in 1893, eight years after his first—Cleveland noticed a strange rough spot on the roof of his mouth. A few months later it had grown in size and his doctor confirmed what Cleveland feared. The president had cancer. “It’s a bad looking tenant,” Cleveland’s doctor told him. “I would have it evicted immediately.”

Cleveland knew he would have to hide his condition from the public. In 1893, a considerable stigma existed around cancer, called the “dread disease.” In addition, Cleveland feared that revealing his illness would send the already suffering economy into a tailspin.

The solution? Cleveland told the public that he was going on a fishing trip. And although the president would spend a few days on a yacht, he would not be doing any fishing. Doctors had been summoned to remove the cancer from his mouth.

During the 90-minute surgery, a team of six surgeons aboard a moving vessel extracted the tumor, five of Cleveland’s teeth, and a section of the president’s left jawbone. They did this through the roof of the president’s mouth—which left no marks to alert the public. Indeed, keeping Cleveland’s famous moustache intact was a stipulation of the surgery.

The American public was kept entirely in the dark. When an astute journalist named E.J. Edwards published the truth of the matter in the Philadelphia Press, the president and his team firmly denied it. The public turned against Edwards, labeling his story a “deliberate falsification.”

Edwards’ reputation was in tatters—but, twenty-four years later, he would be redeemed. In 1917, one of the surgeons from the boat acknowledged that Edwards had been right, noting that the journalist had been, “substantially correct, even in most of the details.”

By then, however, Cleveland had left office and died of a heart attack.

Other examples of American presidents hiding their illnesses abound throughout the country’s history. John F. Kennedy struggled with Addison’s disease and back issues. Some close to Ronald Reagan—including his own son—claim that the president suffered from Alzheimer’s while in office, although the majority of those close to Reagan deny this.

Franklin Roosevelt also presents an interesting case. Despite a persistent belief that he hid his polio from the public, the president’s condition was not a secret—newspapers had published articles that included information about his wheelchair and leg braces. The president’s disability was discussed often.

However, Roosevelt believed it was important that Americans did not see him in a wheelchair. He wanted Americans to believe that he was capable. That’s why he would stand to give a speech, even at great cost to himself. (If you look at photos of Roosevelt speaking while standing, you may notice how tightly he grips the edges of the podium.)

Roosevelt also asked the press to avoid taking photographs of him walking or being transferred into a car. They didn’t always follow the rules. But if someone did snap a photograph of Roosevelt that the president didn’t like, the Secret Service leapt into action.

In 1936, Editor & Publisher reported just how the Secret Service would react to an aggressive photographer—by taking the camera and tearing out the film. In 1946, the White House photography corps backed this up. They acknowledged that if they took the kind of photographs that the president had asked them to avoid, they would have “their cameras emptied, their films exposed to sunlight, or their plates smashed.”

In any case, hiding health scares seems to be a strong tradition among American presidents. It makes sense. It’s easy to draw a line between the health of the nation and the health of its executive.

Calvin Coolidge Goes to Cuba

By Kaleena Fraga

Some of you may know that I’ve started a podcast with a former colleague of mine. Yesterday in Travel focuses on moments in travel history—but there’s quite a bit of overlap with what we like to discuss here at History First.

In our last episode, my co-host and I discussed President Obama’s 2016 trip to Cuba. As part of our discussion, we touched on Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 trip to Cuba and man—that’s a fantastic story.

Today, we’re going to delve into Coolidge’s 1928 trip. At the time, it seemed like a rather serene affair. The wild truth about the trip didn’t come out until decades later.

Why did Calvin Coolidge go to Cuba?

Thirty years before Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since then, the United States, empowered by the Platt Amendment, reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. (The 1903 amendment also leased Guantanamo Bay to the Americans.)

By 1928, attitudes toward the Americans had soured. Even Coolidge, who expressed little interest in foreign affairs, recognized the need for action. His term in office lasted between 1923 and 1929—a lull of a decade between WWI and WWII—and many of the foreign affair issues of the day had to do with American intervention in Latin America. (Coolidge himself had only left the country once before—for his honeymoon in Canada.)

Coolidge went to Cuba in 1928 to attend the Pan American Conference in Havana. The president and his entourage sought to persuade delegates away from passing anti-U.S. resolutions. Many Latin American countries critiqued American military interventions in places like Panama, Hondorus, Nicaragua, and Haiti, and Coolidge wanted to keep the peace. (This was not helped by the fact that Coolidge ordered an invasion of Nicaragua as he prepared to depart for Cuba.)

In Cuba, Coolidge extended an olive branch. He emphasized—in an attempt to quell criticism—that all the countries in the Pan American conference were equal. Coolidge focused on “peace and goodwill” in his public remarks—although he arrived in Cuba on a massive WWI battleship called Texas.

Overall, Coolidge saw the trip to Cuba as a way to begin a campaign for world peace. The ensuing Kellogg-Briand Pact, a worldwide peace treaty that banned war, hoped to avoid the violence of WWI in the future. Of course, sadly, the world leaped into the bloody conflict of WWII not soon after the Pact was created in 1928.

What happened during the trip to Cuba?

If you read the newspapers of the day, you would have the impression that a serious president had conducted his serious mission, seriously. After all, this was a serious time, right in the apex of the Prohibition era in the United States—not that Coolidge was much of a drinker.

But thirty years after the trip, one of the traveling members of the press revealed that Coolidge’s trip to Cuba wasn’t the stodgy affair that it had seemed in the papers. Beverly Smith Jr. had accompanied the president as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1958, he revealed that much of the trip never made the papers.

The 6 day junket to Cuba and return had in it elements of pageantry, drama, comedy, and farce…it became, in its latter stages, a large scale smuggling operation. The whole show took on a special illicit zest because it was conducted under the dour, dead-pan aegis of President Coolidge—Silent Cal, Cautious Cal, austere symbol of the old Puritan virtues, staunch upholder of the Prohibition Amendment.

Beverly Smith, Jr.

The trip got wild from the get-go. Once the party traveling with the president arrived in Key West, they quickly realized that—despite the strict state of Prohibition around the country—alcohol still flowed freely in the bars of this Floridian city.

The president went to bed at a respectful hour. After all, people called him “Silent” Cal not “Fun” Cal. (Someone—perhaps Alice Roosevelt Longworth, although she later denied it—once described Calvin Coolidge as having the expression of a man “who has been weaned on a pickle.”)

When Coolidge’s secretary announced that the president had gone to bed, the party began. “With these words,” Smith wrote thirty years later, “the dignity of the tour began to crack. It was as though mice had been informed that the cat was away.”

The party lasted all night, with many people stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning. The next day, one reporter was so drunk that he fell into the ocean while boarding the ship to Cuba. Smith, looking back, noted that at the time many Americans saw it as their patriotic duty to “[sluice] down any drinks within reach.” Clearly, the traveling press corp felt up to this particular patriotic challenge.

Once the USS Texas landed in Cuba, Coolidge and his party were greeted by a massive crowd—perhaps up to 200,000—of cheering Cubans. In her biography of Calvin Coolidge, Amity Shlaes wrote, “Thousands climbed onto the Morro Castle and the rooftops of buildings, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the battleship USS Texas as it moved into the harbor.”

Smith noted that even the usually subdued Coolidge cracked a smile at the reception. “[The president] showed more animation than usual. He bowed, he smiled, he took off his silk hat.” The crowd included—to Coolidge’s horror, once he made the realization—an enthusiastic group of “highly painted young ladies” from a nearby brothel.

The president once again retired early. Once again, the press took to the streets. There, the group of reporters made a thrilling discovery. One of their own had an uncanny likeness to the president. “I suspect,” wrote Smith, “that there are some older Havanas who believe that Cal, outside office hours, was a gay dog.” (Remember—this was the 1920s!)

At one point during their stay in Cuba, Coolidge was presented with a diplomatic conundrum. At the estate of Gerardo Machado, the president of Cuba, Coolidge was offered an alcoholic drink. At least—someone tried to offer him one. And what was the president to do? He couldn’t take the drink in front of the press corps. But a refusal could be seen as a diplomatic faux pas. Smith wrote:

“Cal himself, of course, was the cynosure of the drama. As the tray approached from his left, he wheeled artfully to the right, seeming to admire a portrait on the wall. The tray came closer. Mr. Coolidge wheeled right another 90 degrees, pointing out to Machado the beauties of the tropical verdure. By the time he completed his 360-degree turn, the incriminating tray had passed safely beyond him. Apparently, he had never seen it. His maneuver was a masterpiece of evasive action.”

Beverly Smith, Jr.

As the presidential party prepared to pack up and leave—back to dreary, dry America—the press suddenly got word that they would not need to go through customs in Florida. So…if no one was going to check their bags…

Yes—a mad dash ensued to buy as much alcohol as possible to smuggle home. (They were just doing their patriotic duty, right?) Some reporters bought extra suitcases. Others threw out their clothing to make room for all that rum.

Smith wondered if the president secretly knew. “Was it, incredibly, Calvin himself, out of that quirky humor which was supposed to lurk behind the vinegary Vermont visage?” Smith wondered thirty years later.

Maybe Cal did have a secret sense of humor. He certainly had a simple, straight-forward way of doing things. One of History First’s favorite anecdotes about Silent Cal is that, when asked if he would run for a second term, he handed his press secretary a note that said simply: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.” (Probably a good decision. The economy crashed in 1929.)

Calvin Coolidge stated simply that he would not run for reelection | Library of Congress

If you’re curious to learn more about President Obama’s trip to Cuba in 2016, then I encourage you to take a listen to our podcast episode! We get into how the trip happened, what happened during the trip—spoiler alert: it wasn’t as wild as Cal’s trip, but, then again, maybe we’ll learn more in 30 years—and what Obama’s trip to Cuba means for Americans who want to go there today.

What Did the World Look Like in 1920?

2020 is already off to a dynamic start. What was the state of the world 100 years ago, as it rolled into a new decade?

By Kaleena Fraga

The new year has certainly gotten off to an eventful start. In the first month of 2020, we’ve seen massive fires, sabre rattling, an impeachment trial in the United States, and the end (or the beginning?) of the Brexit saga in the EU. Whew. So what did the world look like 100 years ago? Did people at the time feel that the 1920s started on a similarly chaotic foot?

Obviously (obviously) we’re all about the presidential side of things. So what was the White House situation in January of 1920?

The presidency in January 1920

In 1920, Woodrow Wilson was completing his second term in office. Or, was he? While rallying support for his League of Nations plan in October 1919, the president suffered a debilitating stroke. His wife, Edith effectively took control.

Without the 25th amendment, which would not be ratified for another half-century, there was no way to remove Wilson from office. Not that many people knew about his stroke—in the pre-social media age, Edith Wilson was effectively able to keep her husband’s condition under wraps.

The president’s wife later denied that she’d ever served as president herself, but she did acknowledge her “stewardship” of Wilson’s last year in office.

The average American had no idea. They weren’t habitually checking Twitter like some of us do today.

Presidential campaigns in 1920

As in 2020, 1920 was an election year. Wilson, a Democrat, had broken up a reign of Republicans that had existed since the Civil War. (Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the only Democrats to be elected president between 1860 and 1932.)

Americans wondered who their candidates would be—especially because Theodore Roosevelt, who had energetically barnstormed for a third term in 1912, had died one year earlier, in January 1919. (A Roosevelt would be on the ticket in 1920—Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats.) In January 1920, it seemed that the country might see William Jennings Bryan run—again.

Despite his health, Wilson hoped for a third term. It wouldn’t be. He received little support from the party and died four years later. In any case, Wilson believed that campaigns required vigorous time on the stump. As Jeffrey Normand Bourdon so eloquently describes in his book From Garfield to Harding: The Success of Midwest Porch Campaigns working the stump resulted in victory for Wilson 3/4 times. But in 1920, the ill president could hardly pick up the reins of his old campaign technique.

Which resulted in a fascinating twist. Although the campaign would not start in earnest until the summer (reminder: the 2020 campaign has been dragging on for two years), the Republican nominee and eventual victor, Warren G. Harding, resorted to front-porch campaigning. This technique, as Bourdon describes, had served as a happy medium between seeking the presidency and letting “the office choose the man”—i.e., displaying none of the presidential ambition that was considered fatal in the 19th century.

Popular in the late 19th century, front porch campaigning had lost its shine as great orators like Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan made their mark on American presidential campaigns. But it had proven effective for James Garfield and William McKinley, and Harding went this direction as well.

Harding campaigned on a “Return to Normalcy” and “America First” following the end of WWI. His campaign marketed him as a patriotic family man. Waving to crowds from his front-porch, this was easy for voters to accept. His opponent, James Cox, was divorced. This made Harding’s front-porch persona all the more appetizing.

Harding’s status as a married man gave him a special boost in 1920, the first year American women could vote. The divorced Cox, at a disadvantaged, was portrayed as desperate for women’s votes. A judge involved with Cox’s case told the Los Angeles Times he believed the candidate’s divorce would cost Mr. Cox “a million votes.”

In the end, Harding carried the day by about seven million votes. The victory would be short lived. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, elevating his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to the White House.

The state of the world in 1920

But what did the world look like in 1920? Did the year burst into being with the same cascade of events that we’ve seen in 2020?

The new year picked up to a brisk start. Billy Joel could write a song about it. In January alone, an earthquake hit Mexico; the Treaty of Versailles was ratified (without the United States); Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees, Prohibition began, launching an era of bootlegs and speakeasies—the list goes on and on. The war had ended in November of 1918, but the world was still untangling the results. We all know how that turned out.

In summary, life continued to charge forward. In 1920, as in 2020, each day brought an avalanche of something different. But maybe it felt slower. After all, people in 1920 couldn’t spend all day watching events unfold across their phone screen.