Trump’s Dr. Oz Appearance Has Nothing To Do With Health
For the past two weeks, political commentators have been rapt over the state of the two presidential candidates’ aging bodies. Trump supporters have spun up theories about Clinton’s failing health (those pillows must mean something), while the Clinton campaign recently released another note from her doctor explaining her pneumonia diagnosis. Tonight, Trump will appear on The Dr. Oz Show to talk about his health.
In many ways, this move is classic Trump: Oz is a hugely popular TV host with a penchant for ratings and a questionable relationship with facts. He’s hosted anti-vaxxers, touted “miracle” cures, and faced a Senate subcommittee that scolded him for endorsing weight loss supplements. Trump will be right at home in front of a camera, and in his free-ranging conversation with Oz, he can dodge and deflect as much as he wants.
Plus, the show has trumpeted, Trump will finally release some actual, specific medical records. (At least, the campaign said he would, then backed off and said the appearance would be “a conversation generally about well-being,” and then reversed again after the show’s taping.) But those records probably won’t clear anything up. “You can’t assess a human being’s medical condition by chatting up on a stage with them,” says Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at UPenn.
On the show, Trump will share the results of a physical with Oz—in the form of a one-page printout by Harold Bornstein, the doctor who penned a letter last year claiming that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” if he wins. But how healthy Trump is (or Clinton, for that matter), is beside the point. The president’s physical health has always been a weird footnote of US history, compared to, y’know, what they actually did in office. And the current discussion isn’t really about health at all—it’s more about transparency and one-upping the other candidate.
Presidential candidates have released medical records for 40 years, ever since George McGovern turned the press’s attention to presidential health by announcing in 1972 that his running mate had been hospitalized for depression. Before then, the press didn’t cover politicians’ health as closely—partly because reporters saw it as more off-limits, partly because they didn’t have the all-seeing eye of social media. Since then, it’s become something of an expectation. But Clinton and Trump have bucked that trend, says Larry Altman, a doctor and a veteran New York Times reporter on the presidential health beat. That deviation from the norm is fueling speculation about how healthy these candidates really are.
Here’s the thing, though: What counts politically as “medical records” varies—and it probably differs from the sheafs of appointment records, prescriptions, and scrawled doctors’ notes you’d amass if you collected your own medical history. For a candidate, those records usually are letters from their doctor, summarizing the salient points of their medical history.
Before Wednesday’s note, Clinton released a two-page missive from her doctor, Lisa Bardack, in 2015. In 2008, the press dinged Illinois doctor David Scheiner for writing just 276 words to summarize the health of his patient, Barack Obama. Bob Dole, on the other hand, released a nine-page report in 1995, detailing his WWII wounds and his surgery for prostate cancer. And medical transparency hawks have touted John McCain, who released more than 1,000 pages of health in 2008—even if his campaign hand-picked the small group of journalists who were allowed to see the documents and gave them only a few hours to sift through it all.
The point is, doctors can essentially choose how to present their patient’s medical history, so they can be as detailed or reticent as they wish, Moreno says. “Do you include smoking? A history of breast or prostate cancer in the family? There’s no consensus,” he says. And, in this election, Trump’s chatting about his medical history—or, at least, a page-long list of information written by a doctor who called Trump’s lab test results “astonishingly excellent”—on a daytime talk show counts as a release.
But how healthy the candidates are (or aren’t) may not matter much anyway. Many presidents hid their ailments: JFK and Addison’s disease, FDR and polio, Woodrow Wilson’s stroke, Grover Cleveland’s mouth cancer. For the most part, says Robert Gilbert, a political scientist at Northeastern University, their presidencies went fine—their illnesses had little impact on their ability to get things done. That will probably hold true in this election, too.
So why demand those records? “It’s about transparency,” Altman says. He argues that it’s a matter of informing voters—even if they decide they’re willing to vote for a candidate with heart problems, say, at least they know the risks. But if the candidates aren’t hiding life-threatening conditions, it’s a short jump from being an informed voter to rubbernecking. “Mostly, people are just curious,” says George Annas, a health law researcher at Boston University.
Candidates have attacked each other for not revealing medical records before. But Trump has conquered this particular election-cycle game: He attracted plenty of media buzz for appearing on Dr. Oz and broadcasting that he has nothing to hide health-wise, while simultaneously revealing very little. Sure, he mostly eats fast food and considers vigorous gesticulation during speeches exercise. That has nothing to do with how he’ll perform in office, should he win.
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