The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House

The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House

The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House

The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House


The presidency is hazardous to your helth. Fully two-thirds of our presidents have died before reaching their life-expectancy- despite being wealthier, better educated, and better cared for that most Americans. In Mortal Presidency, the first complete account of death and illness in the White House, Robert E. Gilbert looks at modern presidents including Coolidge, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan. He shows- in some cases, for the first time- that all suffered from debilitating medical problems, physical and/or psychological, which they frequently managed to conceal from the public but which, in important ways, affected their political lives. This edition is updated to include a brief look at Presidents Clinton and Bush, both of whom suffered sudden and unpleasant indispositions while in office which to some degree affected their presidencies.


Franklin D. Roosevelt served as President of the United States for a longer time than any other man in American history. Despite the image of energy and strength he projected, Roosevelt was afflicted by both disability and serious illness while in the White House. He had never recovered fully from his 1921 bout with polio, a fact concealed from the public for many years lest it might be detrimental to his political career. the methods of concealment, involving both image control and media management, produced a veil of secrecy that was not penetrated until long after his death. Also, after several years in office, Roosevelt began to suffer from cardiovascular disease which eventually ended his life. Contrary to the widespread belief at the time, his death was in no way sudden or unanticipated.

Although, to his critics, Roosevelt's physical deterioration had a negative influence on his performance as President during the crucial years of the Depression and the Second World War, particularly at the Yalta Conference in early 1945, it is now possible to judge more fully the accuracy of this notion.

The Early Years

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's medical problems began on the day of his birth, 30 January 1882. An excessive amount of pain-killing chloroform was given to his mother, and the child entered the world "in a deathlike respiratory standstill, the skin blue, the body limp," requiring mouth to Much of this chapter was published in my article "Disability and Illness in the White House: the Case of Franklin D. Roosevelt," Politics and the Life Sciences (August 1988): 33-50.

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