“I May Live To Be Ninety”, Says The President


Bala Muhammad


Alhamdu lillah! Ma sha Allah! Phew! There was a Federal sigh of relief across the nation Thursday night, Democracy Day, when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, in a live television interview, allayed all fears about the state of his health (and the state of the health of the nation). There is nothing serious about his health, said the president, and certainly nothing to worry about. He stated that he is but a normal human being, with a tendency to fall ill, and become well.

Nothing to worry about, that is, except the mention of an inflated aorta (which turned out to be a false alarm); some constant cold; a Metakelfin-resistant malaria; an allergy; a history of kidney problem; but nothing serious. During the course of the interview, there was nothing serious for Nigerians to worry about except that particularly perennial, persistent, constant and well-timed cough which fully participated in the interview, and some apparent skin lesions around the neck area. And considering one’s television set is not High Definition (HDTV), one may have missed other signs of normalcy.

The president mentioned that as a human being, he may die tomorrow [yesterday, Friday]; he may die next month [June]; or he may live to be ninety. It is not in his hands. Only Allah knows. (May Allah extend the life of the president, and of this writer, and of all readers, to reach ninety and beyond, amin.)

Nothing to worry about. That is the apparent message to the American people these last few days as presidential hopefuls allay all fears about their state of health. Last week, presumptive Republican candidate in the November US presidential election John McCain released 1,173 pages of personal medical records to declare a clean bill of health. (McCain would be 72 years old on Inauguration Day were he to win the elections). Not to be left out, the personal physician of leading Democratic Party hopeful Barack Obama this week issued a cleaner bill of health (albeit a smoking habit Obama has been trying to kick). And, it should be expected, another clean bill may come from Hillary, (after all her husband is called Bill).


Hot on the campaign trail, respected US newsmagazine, in its May 24 online edition, ran an interview Ann Underwood had with Dr. Jerrold Post, Director of the political psychology programme at George Washington University. Titled Picture of Health, the interview discussed why some US presidents have gone to great lengths to hide their physical and mental illnesses.


Dr. Post started with president Dwight D. Eisenhower who had a heart attack in 1955, an abdominal operation in 1956 and a stroke in 1957. Post further discussed France president Francois Mitterand who, when he came to office, swore to lead an open presidency. But on his first day in office in 1981, he called in the presidential physician, Dr. Claude Gubler, and told him that his prostate cancer had spread to his bones. Mitterand solemnly declared, “We must reveal nothing. These are state secrets.” He led France for 14 years with the constant and painful companion of metastatic cancer. Asked Dr. Post: “How could that not have affected his decision making?”

After Eisenhower’s ailment became public, the media set the discussion agenda. On July 31, 1956, the New York Times ran an article titled “Harvard Heart Expert Says Physicians Should Stick to the Medical Facts Previous Illness Cited.” The first paragraph read “Dr. David B. Rutstein questions in a magazine article whether the American public is properly informed by medical men who care for our Presidents when they are stricken ill.”

On January 19, 1964, not long after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the same newspaper ran an article with the headline “Action Suggested on Ill Presidents: Two Legal Experts Call for Commission on Inability.” (Two legal experts have called for immediate steps toward a ‘practical solution’ to the problem of what to do when a President is incapacitated).

In the Newsweek interview, Dr. Post asks: What are some of the more intriguing cases of presidents who have concealed information about their health?

Grover Cleveland [who served as US president 1885-1889 and 1893-1897] was brushing his teeth one morning, when he noticed a lump in the roof of his mouth. He called in his dentist, who summoned a head-and-neck surgeon. The surgeon diagnosed the lump as a carcinoma of the roof of the mouth. Cleveland thought it would cause an economic crisis if the information was released that he had cancer, so during the night, he smuggled an anesthesiologist, nurses, his dentist and the head-and-neck surgeon onto the presidential yacht under the guise of a pleasure trip on the Hudson River. During the trip, they removed the roof of his mouth up to his left eye, and inserted a rubber prosthesis internally. People were suspicious, but it wasn’t revealed until 15 years after his death what had happened.


(We all remember Ronald Reagan, don’t we? Here was a president who was never hale, nor hearty. Added to that, he was shot in an assassination attempt. Yet his handlers managed America for the eight years he was there, most times disastrously.)


What of Woodrow Wilson, asks Dr. Post? In the fall of 1919, Wilson had a disabling stroke while he was on a train trip across the country to mobilize support for his cherished League of Nations. The public knew he was ill, but they didn’t know how ill. Only [his wife] Edith Wilson, chief of staff Joseph Tumulty and his personal physician, Cary Grayson, were allowed to see him. Issues were brought in, and decisions would come out. We talk today about the possibility of having the first woman president, but we effectively already had one in Edith Wilson. After her husband partially recovered, Mrs. Wilson said, “I don’t know what you men make such a fuss about. I had no trouble running the country when Woody was ill.”


(Scary stuff! It has just been announced that our President’s experienced Chief of Staff General Abdullahi Mohammed (Retired) will soon retire (again). May God forbid that someone would have to go in with the issues and come out with the decisions in this country. Though we have to admit we have several competent hands around the president, let us clap with one hand by contemplating, comparing and contrasting President Wilson’s kitchen cabinet with no one in particular: First Lady Edith Wilson, chief of staff Joseph Tumulty and personal physician, Cary Grayson.)


Dr. Post continues: Franklin Roosevelt would be the most famous example of a president who concealed information about his health. His polio was well known – and it humanised this aristocratic man – but the press was respectful. There were only two or three pictures of him in a wheelchair. What wasn’t so well known was how ill he was when he went to the Teheran summit with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in 1943. He came back quite ill. The White House doctor, [Vice] Admiral Ross McIntire, directed cardiologist Howard Bruenn, a Navy [lieutenant] commander, to examine Roosevelt. Bruenn was alarmed at the gravity of Roosevelt’s illnesses. He diagnosed congestive heart failure, hypertension, acute bronchitis and longstanding pulmonary disease.


McIntire told Bruenn, you must not tell the president and his family the extent of his illness, and you certainly cannot tell the American public. He issued a reassuring communiqué to the effect that, for a man of his age, Roosevelt was in remarkably good health. But Franklin’s son, James Roosevelt, later said he’d never been reconciled to the fact that his father’s physicians allowed him to run for a fourth term. It was his death warrant. At the Yalta summit in 1945, Churchill’s physicians said that Roosevelt looked old and drawn and sat staring ahead with his mouth open. He intervened little in the discussion. He died shortly after the summit of a massive cerebral haemorrhage.


And, says Dr. Post, President Kennedy had Addison’s disease, but it was only in Robert Dallek’s 2003 biography of John Kennedy that we learned the extent of Kennedy’s illnesses, which he concealed and which his family continued to conceal after he was assassinated – colitis, duodenal ulcers, osteoporosis and Addison’s disease, which is a life-threatening insufficiency of the adrenal glands, requiring twice daily steroids. By 1950, he had constant back pain from vertebral collapse. From the mid-1950s, he was taking powerful narcotics like Demerol and methadone. He took barbiturates for sleep and tranquilisers for anxiety – as many as eight medications a day. There’s some indication that he may have abused amphetamines. Before press conferences, he often required injections in the back to control his pain. Throughout his career, he concealed his illnesses.

(If a country is sick, as Nigeria definitely is, does it matter whether its leaders are sick or healthy? Was it not said that a people get the leaders they deserve? In the circumstances, good handlers can ensure a nation is not left to drift, as could be seen in some the American examples. But long live the President).

The Hausa say “tsiyar nasara sai za shi gida!” (Loosely translated, some people use their last cards at the dying minute). For eight years (1999-2007) we had a robustly-healthy president in retired General Olusegun Obasanjo. (Further evidence of just how healthy he in fact was is in evidence in a family matter in a Lagos court, shame on me!). This healthy piece of stoic soldierness offered himself to the nation for many more years of service, yet Nigerians rejected all his overtures.

Therefore, on the occasion of the nation’s Democracy Day, the former president wishes Nigerians Goodluck.