The Secret Medical Records of Presidential Candidates

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Senator Paul Tsongas had a secret when he ran in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary — his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma had returned despite a bone-marrow transplant. Yet Tsongas and his physicians continued to claim he was “cancer-free” and his true medical condition became public only after his campaign folded. Had voters elected him president instead of Bill Clinton, Tsongas would have endured crippling cancer treatments and died in office, as he did just a few years later. “I don’t know if he could have even gone to the inauguration. It would have been a public policy disaster,” says Robert Gilbert, a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.

As the 2008 presidential race wears on, the medical records of presidential candidates remain shielded by federal law. None are legally required to disclose any medical conditions when running for commander in chief. But a number of historians, bioethics scholars and physicians have argued that medical privacy should not allow presidential candidates to hide serious health problems from voters.

“If you get on a plane, that pilot gets a physical every six months,” observes Dr. James Toole, a professor of neurology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Presidential candidates “need physicals,” particularly mental health examinations, Toole says, to hold them accountable to voters. At least ten sitting presidents suffered from some mental disorder while in office, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

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