Columns » Ernest Dumas

Privacy hurts



Hillary Clinton's decision to keep her mild case of pneumonia secret from all but a few of her staff and family may be only a momentary campaign distraction, but it raises the question: Will she ever get it?

That is, after so many stumbles, will she ever realize that her unrelenting insistence on a "zone of privacy," a citizen's right honored in the Bill of Rights, is a dead weight in the political world? It is all that has stood between her and the presidency.

John Brummett in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette imagined Clinton's response to the doctor's prescription of a few days' rest. It probably comes close to a literal transcription. Since rest might seem to be an affirmation of Donald Trump's charges that her fall and concussion in 2012 left her physically unfit for the presidency, she must keep the pneumonia secret and drive herself harder.

"Hillary is sick" may be Trump's least effective stratagem. There is never an occasion when she is not more alert and more responsive than he, nor is anyone likely to be swayed by the charge unless they hate her anyway.

Many presidents had big health problems that they diminished or hid entirely, often with the media's complicity. The severely incapacitated Franklin D. Roosevelt is only the most famous. A historian sifting through President John F. Kennedy's papers in 2002 discovered the breadth of the president's suffering from Addison's disease and addiction to painkillers and anxiety medicine even as he took the country to the brink of nuclear war over Russian missiles in Cuba in October 1962 (my drill sergeant's scolding that day is still fresh: "Train hard, men, you'll be shooting Russians in a few days"). Warren G. Harding was treated for heart trouble, depression and mental illness long before anyone had a clue about how to treat them. Americans never knew that strokes left Woodrow Wilson half-blind and partially paralyzed. The rail-thin Andrew Jackson suffered headaches, bleeding lungs, gum disease, near blindness and pain from two bullets he took in duels. William Taft, a 300-pounder, endured hypertension, sleep apnea and double vision. The senior President Bush had bleeding ulcers, arthritis, atrial fibrillation and Graves' disease. The signs of the dementia that killed Ronald Reagan showed up fairly early in his presidency. President Eisenhower endured a heart attack, stroke and Crohn's disease.

It is not her pneumonia that is troubling, but her decision, again, to hunker down and protect her privacy for fear that the plain facts might give somebody the impression that she is not the perfect moral, ethical and physical exemplar she wants to be. It has been so since she came on the political scene in Arkansas in 1974 to surreptitiously help her boyfriend Clinton in his first political race. Friends or aides always learn that their advice to just let everything hang out is unavailing.

In politics, nowadays if not so much in the past, shielding harmless or even high-minded deeds from public scrutiny leads to the opposite result — in her case, the widely polled view that she is untrustworthy and Trump's lustily cheered libel that she is "crooked."

It would be pointless to rehash all the privacy stalls but for the two most famous, her refusal in 1993 to share with a newspaper or a congressional committee her law firm's trivial work in the 1980s for a tiny Little Rock thrift, which led to eight years of investigation by the scourge Kenneth Starr, and now her State Department emails.

Memoirs by White House aides recall her dogged refusal, in spite of pleas by advisers and her husband, to surrender a few pages of her firm's billings. Eventually, the independent Whitewater counsels found nothing wrong in the billings, her toil for the little thrift or in any of the other "scandals" that arose in its wake: the travel office firings, FBI files, Vince Foster's suicide, the claims of an Arkansas political enemy that the governor had asked him to make an illegal SBA loan, and on and on. Nothing came of it all but revelations of Bill Clinton's unchecked libido.

But it produced the narrative, still recited by such reluctant Hillary supporters as David Brooks, that the Clintons were "scandal-ridden."

Once The New York Times reported her private email server during her State Department years, she might have acknowledged that, like her predecessor Colin Powell and others in the George W. Bush presidency, she did it to avoid the press or anyone else accessing her thoughts and deliberations through the FOI or subpoena. She said it was just convenience.

She could have mentioned that the Bush White House switched to email servers at the Republican headquarters and destroyed 22 million emails, including the deliberations leading to the Iraq war. That surfaced in 2007 when Congress investigated the White House firing of Arkansas's Bud Cummins and seven other federal prosecutors, but the press never made much of it.

Unequal treatment? Sure, but that is the world she works in. You don't feed it.

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