Clinton’s health emerges as a vulnerability with campaign fumble

The Democratic nominee has been diagnosed with pneumonia

12th September, 2016
Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton’s health threatens to mushroom into a political crisis for her in the closing stretch of the presidential race because of her campaign’s handling of an undisclosed bout with pneumonia as much as the diagnosis itself.

The Democratic nominee’s aides moved late on Sunday to contain the damage after an eight-hour delay in releasing basic details about her status revived scrutiny of any lingering effects from a 2012 concussion and longstanding criticism about her lack of transparency.

That risked eroding voter confidence in her as she seeks to preserve a narrow lead in the presidential race over Donald Trump, whose allies have raised questions and stoked rumours about whether Clinton is healthy enough to serve.

Clinton, 68, was diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday, according to her doctor, Lisa R. Bardack. But the campaign did not go public with that until after 5 p.m. Sunday, New York time, hours after she made an abrupt early departure from a September 11 commemoration at Ground Zero in Manhattan. While her campaign remained silent for almost 90 minutes – the reporters who travel with the candidate weren’t even notified that Clinton was leaving – an amateur video showing her appearing to stumble as she was helped into a black van by aides and Secret Service shot across social media.

Clinton Episode Shows How Both Candidates Have Avoided Close Media Coverage

The episode, and the delayed disclosure, feed into Trump’s line of attack and may reinforce voter mistrust of Clinton stemming from her penchant for secrecy as well as revelations about her use of private e-mail while secretary of state and ties with donors to her family’s foundation. She also still is dealing with the fallout from her remarks at a fundraiser on Friday that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables”. Trump’s spokesman, Jason Miller, said Clinton “revealed her true contempt for everyday Americans".

“Now for 24-48 hours she’s going to have to suffer through an issue that’s not good for her campaign,’’ said Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary under Republican President George W. Bush “It involves her honesty and her health, which politically is a deadly combination. Then she’ll have millions of eyeballs on her for what previously people didn’t take seriously as an issue.’’

Clinton got at least a temporary reprieve from attacks based on her health from Trump, who committed to a political cease-fire of sorts in observation of a national day of remembrance. Trump will continue to stay away from capitalising on the incident, according to people familiar with the campaign’s plans. That may not extend to allies, such as Roger Stone, who on Sunday said, “the hide and seek game Hillary is playing with her health must end" and that "the woman is not well – it’s time for her to admit it".

‘Recovering Nicely’

Bardack, who examined Clinton at the candidate’s home in Chappaqua, New York, on Sunday, disclosed for the first time that Clinton was being treated for pneumonia, discovered Friday after she was evaluated for several public coughing fits brought on by allergies. Clinton was taking antibiotics and had become overheated and dehydrated while at the September 11 ceremony. “She is now re-hydrated and recovering nicely," Bardack said in a statement released by the campaign.

She was initially taken to her daughter Chelsea’s apartment in Manhattan and emerged later to tell reporters, “I’m feeling great.” Clinton’s campaign later scrapped her schedule for Monday and Tuesday, which included fundraisers and appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in California. The rest of the week’s schedule was still being considered.

Given existing unease about her e-mails and the Clinton Foundation, Clinton needs to be open about what happened on Sunday, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University.

“The single most important thing for Hillary Clinton is to be transparent," he said. “Any kind of defensive crouch, I think it could cost her.”

No Hiding

Aides to Franklin Delano Roosevelt took great pains to conceal that he used a wheelchair, John F. Kennedy hid his Addison’s disease and reliance on steroids to treat the illness, and Ronald Reagan was secretive about his onset of Alzheimer’s. But, Brinkley said, in an era of social media and cable news – where the cell phone video shot by someone who happens to be in the right place at the right time can be seen by millions within hours – little can stay under wraps for long. "I don’t think you can get away with hiding your health the way a previous generation did," he said.

Fleischer said Clinton can likely get past the issue, “unless she has another serious health incident".

Average life expectancy for women in the US is just over 81, five years longer than for men. Yet Trump, who is 70, has been able to effectively make Clinton’s health into a political issue while there’s been far less scrutiny of his physical condition.

Gender Stereotypes

Questioning Clinton’s health feeds into gender stereotypes, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "The stereotypes of older women are active and Donald Trump is playing into them –– unstable, fragile. They’re stereotypes so we don’t realise when they act on us," she said.

Trump would be the oldest person to assume the presidency if he gets elected. Clinton would be the second oldest, after Ronald Reagan.

Clinton released a two-page letter from Bardack in July 2015 giving some details about her medications and treatment for a concussion in 2012 and blood clots. It addressed Clinton’s head injury, which occurred after the then-secretary of state "suffered a stomach virus after travelling, became dehydrated, fainted and sustained a concussion," according to a Bardack’s letter. She stated that overall Clinton "is in excellent physical condition and fit to serve as President of the United States."

Doctor’s Letter

Trump has released letter from his physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, that gave few details and declared the Republican would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Bornstein told NBC News last month that he wrote the four-paragraph assessment in five minutes. In another unconventional twist in a campaign that’s been full of them, Trump is scheduled to appear in a pre-taped interview on Thursday with Mehmet C. Oz, also known as Dr. Oz, to discuss his “personal health regimen”.

Trump has used questions about Clinton’s health, including highlighting her recent coughing spells, as a counter to the Democratic nominee’s accusation that he’s temperamentally unfit and unqualified to president.

Thus far, there’s been scant evidence that the questions have resonated outside Trump’s circle of fervent supporters. The way the Clinton team handled Sunday’s event may provide an opening for Trump’s argument to gain more purchase.

The delay in disclosing the pneumonia diagnosis and the silence from the campaign immediately after Clinton left the September 11 commemoration "lets everyone fill the holes themselves, ‘’ said Jennifer Loven, managing director of the strategic communications firm Glover Park Group in Washington and a former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. “That can be embarrassing at the very least, or it can be very damaging because it ends up reinforcing the very negative impressions you were afraid of in the first place – perceived problems about transparency and worries about her health."

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