Originally published in MedPage Today
by Liz O’Brien
Exactly whom are we honoring on Presidents (or is it President’s) Day?
A. George Washington
B. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln
C. All presidents
Certainly every one of these 43 men has earned the recognition of posterity. Some may have more successfully executed the office of the President of the United States than others. But, as a group, they all have my respect just for being able to get out of bed in the morning, knowing what was in store for them as the day wore on.
As the author John Steinbeck wrote, “We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man can take, more pressure than a man can bear.”
This raises a question: Given that extreme psychological stress is an occupational hazard of the Oval Office, what about its attendant risk of maladies such as heart disease and high blood pressure, its possible toll on the immune system, and its contribution to a host of harmful behaviors? Is the presidency hazardous to one’s health?
Of course, at least in modern times, our presidents are assured of the best medical care in the world, and I would think there’s probably a “survival of the fittest” factor at work that allows only those with the most robust health and sturdiest constitution to make it to the White House in the first place.
But the dangers of the pressures of the office to health are real, and the possible consequences of illness’ effect on our chief executive are sobering. These issues are the subject of the book The Mortal Presidency, Illness and Anguish in the White House by Robert E. Gilbert.
Gilbert, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, looks at several modern presidents (FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan among them) who experienced illness while in office and shows how it affected their personal and political lives — and the lives of their countrymen. It’s quite a story. You may want to check it out.
On a happier note — in spite of the crushing workload, anxiety, and frustrations that come with the job — most of our presidents seem to have fared fairly well healthwise, and a few reaped the gift of astonishing longevity for their day.
One of the most celebrated was our second president, John Adams, who despite his share of agida — getting the Declaration of Independence signed, the Revolutionary War won, and the new nation launched — lived to the ripe old age of 90.
His key to a long life was as up-to-date as the advice we hear today: Exercise.
As he wrote to his son, Charles: “Move or die is the language of our Maker in the constitution of our bodies. When you cannot walk abroad, walk in your room . . . Rise up and then open your windows and walk about your room a few times, then sit down to your books and your pen.”
And he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1812 at the age of 77, “I walk every fair day, sometimes three and four miles. Ride now and then, but very rarely more than 10 or 15 miles.”
” . . . more than 10 or 15 miles”? At the age of 77 — not bad!
Perhaps Adams was just boasting a bit to Jefferson, his old rival and friend, who had just turned 70. But I’m apt to believe him. Especially today.
On Presidents Day I put aside my cynicism and concern with the all-too-human faults and frailties of those we’ve chosen to be our nation’s leader. And for one day dare to believe in those larger-than-life images and the stories of great men and noble ideals, which, like all myths, reflect a truth. And that is that the Office of the President of the United States — in the solemnity of the responsibility it places upon the shoulders of those who attain it — has the capacity to summon the best from them.
And if we honor presidents today, it’s not only for their achievements as recorded in the history books, but also for their struggle to meet that summons.
Liz O’Brien is production editor at MedPage Today and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.
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