Why you should care
Because if we’re going to play amateur doctor on Twitter, we might as well double down.
“Our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security,” said John F. Kennedy. But let’s face it, since Kennedy’s time, U.S. presidents have generally grown flabbier and less fit.
It might be hard to recall this snowball of a scandal in an avalanche of an administration, but the physician who memorably declared Donald Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” recently confessed his campaign trail assessment came straight from the horse’s mouth. “He dictated that whole letter,” Harold Bornstein told CNN.
Few were surprised, given the president’s braggadocio, but it was a shocking admission nonetheless. After all, Americans like to dwell upon presidential fitness — especially when it helps them knock a candidate they oppose. Liberals whack at Trump, opining openly about the state of his mental health, and in the waning months of the 2016 campaign, conservatives circulated a GIF of a wobbly Hillary Clinton fainting while leaving the 9/11 memorial. The candidates themselves were well aware that public perception mattered: It’s why Trump released the letter, and why Clinton, sensing a need to flex her muscles, mocked the criticism while opening a pickle jar on national television with Jimmy Fallon.
For centuries, we essentially elected our leaders this way, with the spoils of political power often going to the strongest in battle.
But why leave it up to doctors merely checking on pulses, blood pressure and reflexes? If we’re going to keep pretending that presidential physicality matters, let’s lean in. Instead of debates, let’s have primaries that mimic the NFL draft combine. Strip the candidates down — measure, weigh and poke them, and then see how many bench presses they can do, or how fast they can run a 40-yard dash. Why have debates in the general election, when you can have Survivor-style challenges and American Gladiators obstacle courses? If we really want to get medieval about it, let’s include a finale replete with boulder throwing, marathon running and spear tossing.
There’s also an argument that there are softer ways to judge a candidate’s well-being, with health professionals often discussing the prospect of a nonpartisan panel weighing in. And some would argue that obsession with presidential health is just an excuse for politicking and, at worst, distracts from pressing questions about a politician’s actions and beliefs. How much do arbitrary physical feats really matter, considering that polio-stricken Franklin Delano Roosevelt, widely considered by presidential scholars to be one of the top three in history, wouldn’t have passed the simplest of fitness tests?
There’s another, far stickier issue as well. “Needlessly conditioning employment on medical exams could end up discriminating against qualified people with disabilities,” cautions Jessica Roberts, director of the University of Houston Health Law & Policy Institute. That’s why employers aren’t allowed to require medical examinations of any kind before there is an offer, she says. So my idea isn’t legal. But then again, neither is paying off a mistress with an unreported, in-kind campaign contribution.
For centuries, we essentially elected our leaders this way, with the spoils of political power often going to the strongest in battle. Even better, we already have a model. In Idiocracy, the 2006 comedy documenting the fictional decline of humanity, the president is elected having been the five-time Ultimate Smackdown champion and a porn superstar. What could go wrong?