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Questioning Hillary Clinton’s concussion

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Lima, Peru. (Karel Navarro/Associated Press)

Head injuries are no joke, but the backlash against those who initially questioned whether Hillary Clinton’s concussion was for real seems like an overreaction, too; you don’t have to be hateful to have wondered if she really had the flu and fell down right before she was supposed to testify about the security situation at our consulate that was really just a house in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed by terrorists in September.

After all, public officials are routinely less than forthcoming about their health, even if we do know more now than we did when Edith Wilson was secretly running the country after her husband Woodrow’s stroke. Or when the public was protected from the sight of FDR’s wheelchair. Or when John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign flatly denied perfectly accurate, LBJ-inspired reports that JFK suffered from Addison’s disease.

(Of course we also had no clue that as president, Kennedy took both Ritalin and sleeping pills, plus codeine, Demerol and methadone for debilitating back pain, librium for anxiety and at one point, an anti-psychotic for depression. And maybe it would do us good to review the contents of his well-stocked White House medicine chest — and if we do finally get around to addressing long-ignored mental health issues in the new year, post-Newtown, begin by taking a minute to mull the fact that yes, one of our most beloved presidents struggled with mental illness. Take that, stigma.)

I also can’t get too outraged by the early skepticism that Hillary had a blood clot in her brain yet was also doing just great because those two reports don’t seem to mesh. The latter certainly didn’t match the expression of worry on her daughter Chelsea’s face as she left the New York hospital where the secretary of state was admitted on Sunday.

And finally, it isn’t as though Clinton has never shaded a fact in her 65 years; she’s been rightly hailed for a remarkable tenure at the State Department, winning over many critics and probably even avoiding more of the blame for Benghazi than she should have. At this point, it’s the Clinton fatigue that many felt at the end of her husband’s presidency that’s fatiguing to recall, and I hope the most admired woman in the world in 2012 does run for president again in 2016.

But without dragging the ancient White House travel office scandal or the Rose Law Firm into this century, she’s still the same person who repeatedly described coming under fire on a runway in Bosnia. During her ’08 campaign, she was eventually forced to apologize for saying, “I remember landing under sniper fire,” in Tuzla back in 1996. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” That never happened, though the greeting ceremony did.

We know now that Clinton did not pull a Ferris Bueller to avoid testifying about the attack that killed our ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans. But if she had, would we really have thought so much less of her for it? She was praised for having sense enough to let Susan Rice take the Sunday shows right after the attack, and I’m not sure there wasn’t a little admiration in those “Benghazi flu” comments from the right.

Already, reports that describe Clinton’s right transverse sinus venous thrombosis as potentially life-threatening, though apparently caught in time, sound a lot more serious than the word from her doctors that “The secretary is making excellent progress and we are confident she will make a full recovery. She is in good spirits, engaging with her doctors, her family and her staff.” Would we really be shocked to learn down the road that reports during her hospitalization had put a positive spin on her condition?

It isn’t only the pope who’s always in excellent health, according to his doctors, anyway — right up until he dies. Lots of us still prefer “passing away” to plain old death, and news reports persist in relaying that sick people are “resting comfortably,” which nobody in a hospital ever did. Such neatening up of the facts isn’t convincing, though, and when we read that the Indian woman brutally raped on a bus “died peacefully,” we’re right to think no, she didn’t; she was beaten into a coma, which isn’t the same thing.

Our public officials have trained us to take everything they say with a healthy dose of skepticism, and on a matter as sensitive as a head injury followed by denials of any neurological symptoms, I’m not sure why we would or should unquestioningly accept the word of any politician. After all she’s been accused of — and will be again if she runs next time — this is nothing.