What’s really wrong with Hillary? She’s an older woman

Rumours about what’s really “wrong with” Hillary spread fastest among those convinced there's something innately “wrong” with a president being female, liberal or just older, says Gaby Hinsliff
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Do you know absolutely nothing about medicine whatsoever? Great, then let’s play the internet’s newest game: diagnosing Hillary Clinton.

To join in, you don’t even have to watch the brief film footage of her half-collapsing in the street after a 9/11 memorial ceremony, having seemingly forced herself to go when she should have been in bed.

And you certainly don’t need actual evidence to suggest Clinton’s doctor lied in saying she has pneumonia and had been prescribed rest. You just have to know, deep down, that there must be something wrong with this 68-year-old woman seeking power – that she must be too weak, or unreliable, or not up to it somehow. Unlike that nice Donald Trump, who once used an interview about 9/11 to brag that, when the Twin Towers collapsed, one of his buildings took over as the tallest in New York’s financial district.

Ever since she collapsed after a speech in 2012, an attack blamed initially on a stomach virus and which led to the discovery of a blood clot on her brain, Clinton has been accused of “secretly” suffering from enough diseases to fill a medical dictionary – dementia, epilepsy, strokes, liver damage, terminal illnesses galore. If she’s tough enough to fight a presidential campaign through that lot, she should probably be supreme ruler of the universe, never mind president, but that’s not the point.

Many people don’t believe politicians tell the truth and Hillary Clinton hasn’t helped herself in some ways (covering for her husband’s infidelities, using a private email server – although, unlike Trump, at least she publishes her tax returns for all to see). In carrying on campaigning despite being ill, she was arguably covering up, pretending everything was fine when it clearly wasn’t. But does that say more about her or about the culture in which she’s operating?

Nick Clegg described in his autobiography this month how he suffered pneumonia, bronchitis, chest pains and chronic coughs while deputy prime minister, but kept it quiet, instead “trying to look perky in public at all times”. He knew otherwise he’d be portrayed as weak and overwhelmed, a minor-league politician not up to governing with the big boys.

Politicians are supposed to pretend they are never ill – especially if they’re female, older, or otherwise vulnerable to unfair assumptions about whether they’re up to handling pressure

Back in the 1990s, cabinet minister Mo Mowlam kept quiet about being diagnosed with a brain tumour, until bitchy press comments about her weight gain (caused by the treatment) persuaded her to go public. The former culture secretary Chris Smith didn’t reveal until leaving office that he was HIV positive. Both felt the truth could, however unfairly, be damaging. If Hillary had cancelled engagements, her health would have become a huge campaign issue, plus she’d have been accused of letting down 9/11 families – so, presumably, she gambled on toughing it out in silence.  

The irony of all this is that soldiering on when you should be in bed is a recipe for terrible decision-making. Nobody wants to be operated on by a brain surgeon so sick they might faint any minute, or flown by a pilot who can barely function. In other walks of life, we accept that everyone gets sick sometimes, and that it’s sensible to take time off.

But politicians above a certain level are supposed to pretend it just never happens – especially if they’re female, older or otherwise vulnerable to unfair assumptions about whether they’re up to handling pressure. The result is suspicious voters and miserable politicians.

If Clinton really is secretly ill, then she’ll struggle to hide it in office. (American presidents undergo an annual published medical). Until then, all we know for certain is she’s tough enough to keep going through considerable adversity. 

Anyone suggesting Clinton could kill the gossip by publishing all private medical records is missing the wider point, meanwhile, which is that, deep down, conspiracy theories are often cover for something more resistant to treatment. Crazed theories about Barack Obama being born overseas won’t die, no matter how many birth certificates he produces, because what really bothers many “birthers” deep down is that he’s black – to them, that’s pretty much the same as foreign. Rumours about what’s really “wrong with” Hillary meanwhile spread fastest among those secretly convinced there’s something innately “wrong” with a president being female, liberal or just older. If nothing else, Hillary’s armchair doctors are doing a damn good job of diagnosing themselves.

This article first appeared on The Pool and is republished with permission.

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