Presidential candidates' maladies at a glance
Back pain would stop President Kennedy, shown with daughter Caroline in August 1963, from lifting his kids.
July 21st, 2011
08:45 PM ET

Presidential candidates' maladies at a glance

Much was made of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s migraines this week, making her the latest in a long string of U.S. presidential candidates whose health has been put under a public microscope.

Candidates with far more life-threatening conditions have pressed on with their campaigns, and some have been elected. Here are some examples of politicians who dealt with serious (or reportedly serious) health issues during their presidential or vice presidential campaigns, with varying degrees of public awareness.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (president, 1933 to 1945)

Roosevelt’s paralysis in the legs at age 39 (officially from polio, though the diagnosis has been questioned) wasn't exactly a secret when he ran for president 11 years later. But he and the press didn't go out of their way to emphasize it. He was rarely photographed in his wheelchair, for example. He also got around with canes, leg braces and help from aides, and managed a type of walking by "using his hips to swing his atrophied legs forward," the University of Virginia’s Miller Center says in a Roosevelt profile.

Public appearances, such as one in which he "walked" to a podium in 1928 at the Democratic National Convention to nominate Alfred E. Smith for that party’s presidential nomination, "helped dispel rumors about his illness," the center's profile says.

Roosevelt was struggling with heart and circulatory problems as his third term concluded in 1944, but the World War II president sought re-election anyway. In April 1945, just months into his fourth term and weeks before Germany surrendered, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (president, 1953 to 1961)

Two health episodes cast doubt on whether Eisenhower would seek re-election as his first term concluded. The first – a heart attack – happened in September 1955 at age 64 as he vacationed in Denver.

"For several months, as Eisenhower convalesced, the question was whether the president could run again," the Miller Center says in its Eisenhower profile. "But by the beginning of 1956, Eisenhower had resumed a full schedule, and his cardiologist announced that the president was capable of serving a second term."

But in May 1956 – just months before the election, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, or ileitis, and the following month had surgery. The incident "cast momentary doubt on Eisenhower's candidacy, but a routine recovery from three-hour surgery … relieved public apprehensions," The New York Times said in Eisenhower's obituary years later.

He was re-elected, but in November 1957 suffered a mild stroke that for weeks gave him speaking difficulties. He finished his term without any more major health incidents and died in March 1969, eight years after leaving the White House.

John F. Kennedy (president, 1961 to 1963)

Kennedy projected an image of vigor, but he was chronically ill from childhood. His poor health - back problems and Addison’s disease, among other things - caused him to have one of the worst attendance records in Congress, where he served before his 1960 election to the presidency, according to the Miller Center.

"He relied on a steady stream of painkillers and steroids to treat the symptoms of his many ailments," the center's profile on Kennedy says. "Constant back pain would prevent him from lifting even his own small children."

Thomas Eagleton (vice presidential nominee in 1972)

Eagleton, a U.S. senator from Missouri, was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee for less than three weeks in 1972. The reason for the brevity of his stint on George McGovern's ticket: Eagleton was dogged by questions about his treatment for depression.

Addressing rumors of past hospitalizations, Eagleton, after his July 1972 selection, "told reporters that he had been treated and had been treated for ‘nervous exhaustion,'" The New York Times reported decades later in Eagleton's obituary.

"But in response to questions, he acknowledged that the treatment had included psychiatric counseling and electric shocks," the Times reported.

McGovern, who has written that Eagleton told his campaign that nothing in his background would bring trouble, dumped Eagleton in favor of Sargent Shriver. McGovern lost to incumbent Richard Nixon, and Eagleton, then in his first term in the Senate, continued as senator until 1987.

Paul Tsongas (presidential candidate in 1992)

After the Massachusetts politician left the U.S. Senate in the mid-1980s to fight lymphoma, he ran for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, saying he was cancer-free.

He won the first primary, in New Hampshire, but took only five more states and lost the nomination to Bill Clinton. In April 1992, Tsongas acknowledged that he’d been treated for a recurrence of his cancer in 1987, though he’d said previously that he’d been without cancer since 1986, according to The New York Times.

In December 1992, he announced that he’d been diagnosed with another type of lymphoma. In January 1997 – days before his term as president would have ended – he died after developing pneumonia and fighting a liver problem related to his cancer treatments, according to the Times.

John McCain (presidential candidate in 2000 and 2008)

Age was one issue McCain had to address when he ran for president in 2008. At 72, he would have been the oldest man sworn in for a first term. Another was his medical history: He is a skin cancer survivor.

To allay concerns, the U.S. senator from Arizona released more than 1,100 pages of his medical records to reporters. And his personal physician, Dr. John Eckstein, released a letter saying there is no medical reason "that would preclude McCain from fulfilling all the duties and obligations of the president of the United States."

Still, in a CNN/ORC International Poll released in October 2008, 47% of respondents said they were concerned that McCain would not finish a four-year term as president in good health.

McCain, who won the Republican nomination but lost to Barack Obama in the 2008 general election, won his fifth Senate term last year.

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soundoff (132 Responses)
  1. Migraine Sufferer

    As someone who gets regular migraines, I can tell you that they are far more than "bad headaches". But would it prevent her from doing her job as POTUS? No, I don't believe it would. While there are times when they do get bad enough for me that I need to close myself up in a cold dark room, it is never more than for a few hours. I'm sure if she was to receive the nomination (which I doubt) her vice president would be more than capable of taking care of things while she recovers. Just as any other President who had a medical procedure or illness.

    What should be discussed is the causes and treatments of migraine. Educating those who don't have migraines so they understand that it isn't just a headache. That is what should come out of her having them. Frankly, I wouldn't wish my worst enemy to have them.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
  2. Larry Thompson

    Until now, I had forgotten that Obama was black. I just thought he was a typical opportunist politician who really didn't care for the contry as much as for his own ambitions.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
    • James

      Your comment has no place in this article. And Obama has shown far greater interest in this country and the people who actually need the government's help than right wing nuts like you who only focus on race. I'm always concerned when people keep mentioning how much race ISN'T on their minds...

      July 22, 2011 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
    • L

      It's a weird comment, but not far from the truth James. We can't bail out everyone that's why we are bankrupt.

      July 22, 2011 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Shmoe

      Say it with me now.. contry first!

      July 22, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      @Larry- you did not forget, you always were racist.

      July 22, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. gs081

    I don't think we'll have to worry about migraines being a reason to keep Michele Bachmann from being POTUS... plenty of other reasons, and they will become abundantly clear in the first real debates and primaries.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      @gs081: Lol. Yes. Migraines are the least of my concerns with her brain.

      July 22, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Margroks

    Sounds to me she has tried to conceal the migraines and paint them as no big deal, while those around her say differently and I know they can be painful and debilitating. But the real reason she shouldn't be president is that she's a right wing idiot, headaches or not. Anyone who claims African American children were better off as slaves or, as is clear now, promotes family values including therapy to "cure" gays of their supposed afliction ( at the family clinic) haws no business in the Oval Office.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • L

      I really doubt she said that. Of course, it sounds like you live off the government through my paycheck.

      July 22, 2011 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      @L- She said it, heard it. And the truth -O- meter was on her for 24 things she said, 17 were found untrue, 7 was 'pants on fire' and that was 11/2 weeks ago.

      July 22, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  5. tepeters

    Who cares about her migraines? It is what comes out of that brain that is dangerous not how her head hurts.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  6. Texas Doc

    Comparing her to any of these politicians is laughable, except maybe McCain (thanks for Sarah Palin). Bachman is representative of a movement that will go down in history as a curious albeit shameful sidenote. Come 2012 the Tea Party lunatic fringe will slink off into obscurity and enjoy the benefit of their Social Security checks, Medicare, and Medicaid on the porches of their Veterna's Adminstration financed homes.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      I think the Tea Party started out as people who were well intended, tired of Washington BS, and were hijacked by the radical right.

      July 22, 2011 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  7. Observer1

    We never did find out if Trig (or whoever his name is) was Sarah's kid or not. She refused to release any medical info. Wonder why?

    July 22, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Spin Docs

      I wonder......

      July 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. TAK

    Michele Bachmann... You're no Jack Kennedy.

    July 22, 2011 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Raq

      .....and on that note......Barack, You're no Ronald Reagan!!

      July 22, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  9. Spencer McDougal

    Two front page articles on Bachmann's headaches eh? I guess this is the new "driving while black" but its "being a Republican with a flaw"...

    July 22, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Jamie

      I almost agree, except I think two articles is ridiculous because her migraines are the absolute least of her flaws...

      July 22, 2011 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  10. Mark L.

    Michelle Bachmann...♫♫ Let me break out the classic violins and get you a box of Kleenex to wipe away the tears...My heart bleeds for you...♫♫...NOT !!!!

    Michelle Bachmann – You are a 100% pure, bonafide LOSER !!!! I think the migraines is what is causing your mindset to be SO TWISTED !!!!

    July 22, 2011 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      @mark l: could be the twisted brain causing the migraines. Hard to tell which came first

      July 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DaveNYUSA

    Obama is a major pain in the country's asss but nobody seems to mind that.

    July 22, 2011 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
    • L

      I do! Both parties are making bad decisions and can't believe liberals free for all except those who actually work, can't see through it.

      July 22, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Me

      So was Bush. America hasn't had an effective leadership in quite a while. Everyone wants to chant that it's the dems or the republicans or the libs or the conservatives, but really it's just a quagmire of stupidity, greed, and corporate favors.

      July 22, 2011 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  12. michaelfury

    http://michaelfury.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/he-who-controls-the-past/

    July 22, 2011 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  13. THINKthenType

    As a long term Migraine suffered I appreciate the compassion behind those that are defending Bachman's migraines as a non-issue. However, I have to disagree. From personal experience I know that severe migraine's can impact judgement, mood, and the ability to concentrate in the hours or even days before and after the actual headache. Consequently, in some cases, a persons judgement and mood can be impacted BEFORE the sufferer knows they are having a migraine and BEFORE they know they need to take medication.

    Symptoms can include sleepiness, irritability, fatigue, as well as depression, confusion, or euphoria. But don't believe me, simply check reliable sites such Mayo Clinic, MedicineNet, WebMD, or other medical sites and look up Aura, Prodrome, and other migraine symptoms.

    The health and mental stability of anyone running for office is a valid concern. The question that needs to be addressed is if her migraine's include any symptoms that could interfere with her ability to make critical decisions under stressful condition. Migraine is not a type of headache it is a neurological disorder that MAY the sufferers judgement, mood, and ability to concentrate.

    Symptoms can include depression and irritability that

    July 22, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • THINKthenType

      (Edit – that should read)
      that MAY impact the sufferers judgement

      July 22, 2011 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  14. gung hoe

    You want to put the honeus on her migranes for missing votes well what about that halfbreed we have in the white house now how maoy times did he miss votes as a senator but when it came time to vote for him you people went oh yes my savior and how about JFK sounds to me he had a pain killer addiction I Can tell you fisthand that affects your judgment and zou loved him

    July 22, 2011 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      He voted 95% of 695 votes, I went on the congressional and senate site. Migranes are debilitating and last for days. Light sometimes brings them on. Sleep helps if yu can go to sleep, and then you wake up in a fog. Everyone experiences them differently and to varying degrees. Sometimes you lose your sight and can see only peripherallly. Sometimes your arms do not feel like they are yours. If Bachmann missed work because of migranes, they are dehibilitating to her.

      July 22, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  15. leeintulsa

    She also wants to ban p0rn0graphy, the last thing made in america..

    July 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
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