The Health Risks of Being President of the United States - The Intrepid

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Health Risks of Being President of the United States

Alaskan King Crab Fisherman is often cited as the world’s deadliest profession. The ice-cold waters, endless rain, and crushing waves of the Bering Sea make this profession lethal. In 2007, 128 per 100,000 Alaskan Fishermen perished at sea. While this is a high fatality rate, it’s nothing compared to the American Presidency. 8 out of 43 U.S. Presidents have died in office. Presidents have died in office of pneumonia, gastroenteritis, heart attack, and to date, 4 U.S. presidents have been assassinated. King Crab Fisherman don’t have to worry about being assassinated.

The Presidency is a demanding position, both physically and mentally. To see the toil it takes, one only has to examine the before and after pictures. Today, George W. Bush looks 20 years older then in 2000.

Even the act of running for President is exhausting. Barack Obama looks 10 years older now then in 2004. His face has more wrinkles and his dark hair is even starting to show hints of grey.

For the duration of their time in office, U.S. Presidents live grueling lives. Comedians and pundits have often made fun of George W. Bush’s laziness and well-publicized multi-week vacations, but even Bush adheres to a demanding schedule. Between briefings, legislative duties, tours, speeches, and meetings, it’s amazing that Bush usually looks so cheerful. If I had to work, or at least be on, 20 hours a day, I’d be a grouch.

While Bush’s schedules have not been released yet, here is an example from President Jimmy Carter’s morning schedule for March 13, 1978.

  • 5:00 am - The President received a wake up call from the White House signal board operator.
  • 5:40 am - The President went to the Oval Office.
  • 7:45 am - The President met with his Assistant for National Security Affairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
  • 8:15 am - The President met with: Hamilton Jordan, Assistant and Frank B. Moore, Assistant for Congressional Liaison
  • 9:00 am - The President went to the Cabinet Room. The President participated in a Cabinet meeting.
  • 11:08 am - President returned to the Oval Office.
As twentieth century mass media has transformed the presidency, the daily demands of a president have steadily increased. With new duties have come new stresses. Although, George Bush is in excellent health, Bill Clinton suffered several weight related health problems during his two terms that eventually led to a quadruple bypass in 2004.

The fact that most presidents tend to be older doesn’t help either. The average age of a U.S. president is 55. But, even many of the younger Presidents have dealt with health problems. John F. Kennedy, was only 43 when elected, but he suffered from back problems caused by Addison's Disease. To function, Kennedy required daily pain medication. At press conferences, Kennedy often played down his noticeable discomfort, suggesting that he was merely injured from an overly vigorous game of touch football.

Only four Presidents, Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, Warren Harding, and Franklin Roosevelt, have died in office from natural causes. The other four, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, were each felled by an assassins bullet. At 4 out of 43, a U.S. President has a greater chance of being assassinated than an Alaskan King Crab Fisherman has of drowning.

To date, 16 Presidents have been the targets of 20 assassination attempts. From Nixon onward, every sitting President has faced an assassination attempt. Nixon, Ford, Clinton, and George W. Bush have each been targeted twice.

Some attempts have been amateur. In 1994, Frank Corder tried to kill Bill Clinton by crashing a Cessna plane into the White House. The President and the First Family were not home at the time and Corder’s plane crashed on the White House lawn, killing only himself.

Others however, were plotted in detail. In 1993, sixteen Iraqi men attempted to kill George H. W. Bush with a car bomb when he was speaking in Kuwait. The plot was foiled when Kuwaiti police found the bomb and arrested the potential assassins. In June of the same year, the Clinton administration responded to the attack by launching a missile at the Iraqi Intelligence Service headquarters in Baghdad.

The first assassination attempt in U.S. history is probably the oddest. In 1835, Richard Lawrence attempted to kill Andrew Jackson with two derringer pistols. Unfortunately for Lawrence, both of his pistols misfired when he tried to target the President. Jackson, a skilled duelist and former general lunged at Lawrence with his cane and proceeded to beat the tar out of him. Later, after his arrest, Lawrence stated that the charging 67-year old President had nearly scared him half to death.

The symbolic importance of the U.S. Presidency has made the office a target for anarchists, terrorists, and even kooks. Recent Presidential history suggests that John McCain or Barack Obama, regardless of who is elected, will most likely be targeted by a would be assassin. I hope that both know how to wield a cane.