I was coughing up blood by the time I went to see my doctor last week. He didn’t compare me and my acute bronchitis to Hillary Clinton and her pneumonia. Instead, he invoked another presidential candidate who refused to stop campaigning when he was seriously ill: Richard M. Nixon.
“You don’t listen to me about slowing down,” scolded Raymond Scalettar. “Just like Nixon.”
He read the question mark on my face and the rustle of that table tissue as I shifted uncomfortably in the exam room.
“Yes, I was Nixon’s doctor, and he didn’t listen to me, either,” Scalettar declared.
This was an only-in-Washington moment nonpareil. And the start of a great story. I had no idea that my workaholic doctor — he’s 87 and finally retiring next month — had treated Nixon when the vice president was running against Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960.
Washington is an epicenter of germ-infested workplaces, as Scalettar knows all too well. And it’s not just because we’re the capital of one of the few countries on Earth that can’t get its act together on paid sick days, with many minimum-wage workers stiffed when they call in sick.
It’s because we’re also a city filled with hyper-ambitious, work-obsessed professionals who refuse to take time off when they are ill even if they get paid sick days for fear it would shatter the illusion that they’re indispensable.
I was going on day six of a hacking cough as I powered my way through six columns, four public events, a TV interview, a radio talk show, reporting at two construction sites and a gala dinner. (All of this extremely essential, of course.)
Finally, I made an appointment to see Scalettar. I’m usually a mess when I show up. And he shakes his head, because for decades, he’s been telling his sick patients to rest. We rarely do.
He was a young Army captain working at Walter Reed when his most famous patient ignored him.
It was 1960, and Nixon was preparing for the nation’s first televised presidential debate. The debate became a case study in political image-making, with Kennedy looking healthy and vital while Nixon was waxen, sweaty and haggard.
“He was sick during the debate,” Scalettar said.
Only the doctor and Nixon’s advisers knew that Nixon was suffering from a serious infection — the result of a knee injury on a campaign trip to Greensboro, N.C.
Scalettar — a highly decorated doctor to Washington’s power players for more than half a century — disappeared into his office, then returned and handed me a piece of paper.
“Here’s the article I wrote about it.”
In the June 1, 1984, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, my doctor wrote that Nixon smashed his left knee in a car door in August 1960, then showed up at Walter Reed, where then-Capt. Scalettar was rheumatic-disease chief.
Nixon had a staph infection, which brought on septic (poisonous) arthritis. And he refused to take time off from the trail because he had promised to campaign in every state.
Scalettar wrote that the illness, Nixon’s failure to rest and recuperate normally, his loss of time due to illness and his appearance “seriously impaired his effectiveness as a campaigner.”
He’s convinced that Nixon’s medical secret contributed to his narrow loss to Kennedy — by slightly more than 100,000 votes — that November 56 years ago. Coming clean about how sick he was right before that debate may have severely altered the course of American history.
Of course, we also later learned that Kennedy was hiding his own basket of medical secrets. That healthy tan glowing on television during that debate may have been a side effect of the Addison’s disease he was also keeping secret.
Scalettar was equally displeased this week with Hillary Clinton, not only for initially keeping the pneumonia a secret, but also for refusing to listen to her doctor.
Scalettar kept quiet about his Nixon secret for decades — he still bristles at the lack of transparency back then. He was ordered to hide the diagnosis, and it explains how exercised he is about the health machinations of both candidates.
But what they did — push through it — is utterly American.
“Now, looking back, I know I should have followed my doctor’s orders to rest, but my instinct was to push through it,” Clinton said Friday at the Black Women’s Agenda Symposium in the District.
Clinton said it’s also a woman thing.
“That is what women do every single day,” she said. “I felt no different. Life has shown us that we do have to work harder at the office while still bearing most of the responsibilities at home. That we always need to keep going because our families and our communities count on us.”
I get it. Every time Scalettar tells me I need to slow down, I ask him if he has a nanny he’d like to lend me.
History, however, has shown us that Republicans and Democrats — men as well as women — all do it. We push through it. Sometimes with spectacularly awful results.
Who can forget the time President George H.W. Bush ignored his doctor’s advice in 1992?
Instead of staying in bed, as his doctor ordered, Bush went to a state dinner with the prime minister of Japan and promptly puked in His Excellency’s lap. Not good.
“Will you listen to me?” my doctor wanted to know. “You need to slow down.”
I promised him I’d try. Except there’s an event I want to cover this weekend and another interview and a project proposal and this play I’m going to see and my son’s lacrosse game and another son’s class trip.
I thanked him, got my antibiotics from the pharmacy and went back to the office.
Me and Nixon — soul mates.
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