Will Hillary Clinton’s health and age be an issue in 2016?


Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, laughs with her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, at their daughter Chelsea's Oxford University graduation ceremony on Saturday. (Matt Dunham/AP)

Is Hillary Rodham Clinton healthy enough to be president — or is the prospect of her candidacy so formidable that she’s driving her adversaries to desperation?

If Clinton decides to run in 2016, her age and health are certain to be talked about, given that she would be vying to become the second-oldest person in history to be elected. She would be 69, only a little younger than Ronald Reagan when he won his first term in 1980.

What had been only a secondary issue, compared with the prospect of electing the first female president, has suddenly burst to the fore. On Tuesday, the New York Post ran a provocative headline: “Karl Rove: Hillary may have brain damage.”

The newspaper reported that George W. Bush’s former chief strategist suggested as much at a recent conference near Los Angeles.

Rove, reached by The Washington Post, insisted that he had not gone quite that far, saying instead that the former secretary of state should provide more information about a head injury she sustained after a fall in December 2012.

“Of course she doesn’t have brain damage,” Rove said in the interview. But he maintained that Clinton had suffered “a serious health episode” about which “she is going to have to be forthcoming.”

Of course, those words coming from the Republican Party’s most famous bare-knuckles operative were read as something more than an expression of concern for her health.

“All he wants to do is inject the issue into the echo chamber, and he’s succeeding. It’s flagrant and thinly veiled,” said Clinton’s press secretary, Nick Merrill. “They are scared of what she has achieved and what she has to offer. What he’s doing is its own form of sickness. But she is 100 percent, period. Time for them to move on to their next desperate attack.”

Rove also came under harsh criticism from some in his party, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

“It’s a terrible thing for Karl to do,” said Gingrich, who is not known for being shy about attacking an opponent. “It’s petty. It’s personal. It’s negative. It eats up time and space with things that make no difference. . . . We are never going to beat her with this kind of stuff.”

The injury that Clinton suffered has been the subject of speculation by both her friends and her enemies.

Her doctors said that she had become severely dehydrated with an intestinal infection and fainted, suffering a concussion and a subsequent blood clot.

As a result, she had to reschedule her congressional testimony regarding the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. When she did appear, Clinton wore special eyeglasses, with a lens known as a Fresnel prism, that help treat double vision.

“Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that,” Rove was quoted as saying at the conference.

In fact, Clinton spent only three days in the hospital. She was hospitalized Dec. 30, 2012, and released Jan. 2, 2013.

But Rove was correct that the health of presidential candidates — and presidents themselves — is no longer a subject they can avoid.

Today’s media glare is a decided contrast to the days when, for example, President Grover Cleveland could keep his 1893 cancer surgery secret by having it performed aboard a yacht. Or when the extent of Woodrow Wilson’s incapacitation by a 1919 stroke was not known outside a close circle.

Also, more information is certain to be demanded of candidates who are older or who have suffered significant health-related incidents.

Reagan, for instance, battled questions about his age in both his successful presidential campaigns, which he deflected in part with humor.

During a 1984 debate with Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale, Reagan quipped: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Clinton herself has attempted to turn the question of age to her benefit lately, by adding a dash of gender politics to it.

“As men and women age, men are tired of the race. I mean they’ve been running it since their late teens; they’re exhausted,” Clinton said during a recent appearance at historically female Simmons College in Massachusetts. “All they want to do is take a deep breath. They want to retire; they want to play golf; they want to just enjoy life. And women are raring to go because they feel like they’ve fulfilled their responsibilities; their kids are now on their own; it’s now time for them to show what they can do.”

Rove insisted that public pressure will ultimately force Clinton to release all the relevant medical details. However, in recent campaigns, most candidates and their running mates have provided only several pages of the basics, including a letter from their doctors attesting to their fitness.

As late as October 1992, just weeks before the election, New York Times medical writer Lawrence K. Altman noted that Democratic standard-bearer Bill Clinton had been “less forthcoming about his health than any Presidential nominee in the last 20 years.”

He won anyway.

Lenny Bernstein, Chris Cillizza, Alice Crites and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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