Every Independence Day, we Americans reflect on our history, including the history of our presidents. This year, many of us will also be reflecting on health care issues because the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act came just before the holiday. The Georgia Health News staff thought it was a good moment to take a brief, nonpolitical look at health care in American presidential history:
The Fourth of July holiday proved tragic for President Zachary Taylor in 1850. He got a severe intestinal ailment after a long day of attending outdoor festivities, and he died within a few days. Historians say his death was brought on by a combination of things — the dreadful sanitation in pre-Civil War Washington, reckless exposure to the midday sun by a man 65 years old, and inept medical care, which included bleeding and blistering. Today, millions of Americans routinely recover from the condition that killed the president.
On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot in Washington. He was 49, and his wound was survivable. But overzealous doctors probing the wound with unwashed fingers caused a ghastly infection, and he died two months later in agony.
Almost exactly a century later, in spring 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot on the streets of Washington. He was 70, and his wound was far more grave than Garfield’s. He was minutes away from dying. But thanks to the work of his medical team, using techniques and devices unknown in the 19th century, he made a complete recovery.
Reagan not only survived, he went on to have the second-longest life of any U.S. president, dying at 93. And the chief executive who beat him for age honors was his close contemporary, Gerald Ford, who also died at 93. That’s right: The two longest-living presidents in U.S. history both died in the past decade. And the fifth-oldest and sixth-oldest presidents in history, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, are alive today. (And still getting older, or course.)
And how about healthy perspectives? During his presidency in the 1930s and ’40s, Franklin D. Roosevelt quietly insisted that the media not photograph his wheelchair or report the fact that he was unable to walk. Most of the media went along, because disability then carried such a stigma. On the other hand, Roosevelt enjoyed being photographed smoking a cigarette in a long holder. It made him look jaunty and energetic. Smoking was glamorous.
Today, attitudes are completely reversed. In the 1990s, Sen. Robert Dole, a war veteran with a significant physical disability, was a candidate for president, and never thought of hiding his condition. And in President Barack Obama’s White House, it’s tobacco use that’s kept out of the media eye. Obama, who has acknowledged his long effort to beat the cigarette habit (and has kicked the habit, his wife said last year), has always insisted on not being photographed smoking — because he doesn’t want children to make the same mistake he made.
As the lives of our presidents illustrates, we’ve made real progress in health care. But how to keep that progress going is the subject of a great debate, and it’s a debate that will unfold for many years to come.