ack in June, Lloyd Grove, of the Daily Beast, noticed something peculiar. Conservative media and Republican politicians, including Donald Trump, were obsessed with the health status of Hillary Clinton. For years, even before she was diagnosed with a blood clot in 2012, websites like the Drudge Report had recorded every moment in which Clinton coughed or tripped or appeared out of sorts. Hillary’s cough, Grove said, had become a conservative “meme,” a shorthand metaphor for her age and physical incapacity that was also a groundless conspiracy theory. The headline of his article said it all: “Is Hillary Clinton’s Cough the New Benghazi?”
As Grove’s piece suggested, interest in Clinton’s health provoked a reaction from journalists eager to rule the subject out of bounds. The media blowback intensified along with Clinton’s cough. And when Clinton was revealed to be unhealthier than the American public had been led to believe, her physical condition took on another dimension. The cough was no longer funny, no longer material for irrational speculation. It became a metaphor for Clinton’s untrustworthiness and dishonesty, an illustration of the way the media play defense for liberal politicians.
By Labor Day weekend, for example, when Clinton’s first press availability in months was interrupted by another hacking fit, Chris Cillizza had had enough. The affable Washington Post political reporter, who edits the highly trafficked blog The Fix, announced that Clinton’s health status was not a legitimate topic of inquiry. “Can we just stop taking about Hillary Clinton’s health now?” he asked on September 6. The cough was “a totally ridiculous issue,” Cillizza said, “one that if Trump or his Republican surrogates continue to focus on is a surefire loser in the fall.” Why? Because “the simple fact” is “there is zero evidence that anything is seriously wrong with Clinton.” So shaddup you face.
Nor did Cillizza flinch when Twitter users pointed out that, eight years ago, he had written the very opposite about the health of Republican nominee John McCain. “We are talking about—and I am/was writing about—apples and oranges,” he said. McCain would have been the oldest man elected president. He was also a cancer survivor. Neither was the case with Clinton. “And based on all available medical evidence,” Cillizza went on, “from an actual doctor who has actually examined Clinton—she suffered a concussion and resultant blood clot in 2012/2013 from which she has fully recovered.”
James Hamblin, an M.D. and senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, concurred. “If there were reason to discuss Clinton’s cough,” he wrote, “it would traditionally be as a story of resolution and determination—a public servant who refuses to be sidelined by some infirmity,” like, say, FDR. “As an outside observer,” Hamblin continued, “what would be concerning is a person who never coughs. And what is concerning is the standard through which this cough, in this particular person, is read as weakness.”
This flipping of the script—so that the story isn’t the candidate but the people scrutinizing her—was a common response. A week after Dr. Drew Pinsky caused an uproar when he said on a radio program that he was “gravely concerned not just about her health,” but also Clinton’s “health care,” HLN canceled his cable show. When Andrew Rafferty, an embed with NBC, wrote a piece on September 5 headlined “Hillary Clinton Fights Back Coughing Attack,” Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told Rafferty to “get a life.” Clinton herself laughed off the incident, ascribing it to “allergies.” The co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski, was against showing video of the fit. “It’s silly,” she said. They played the clip anyway. When it was over, Brzezinski said, “She’s awesome. Not sick.”
Oh, but she was.
The worst day of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has to be September 11, 2016. It exemplified the changing explanations and outright lies for which Clinton is known.
At first there was confusion, since Clinton departed without the pool of reporters that follow her every move. Then a spokesman said that she had left because she was feeling “overheated.” Then a video surfaced in which Clinton struggled to reach her SUV, and had to be lifted by staff members into the vehicle. Then Clinton appeared outside the apartment and said she felt great. And then, hours after the event, the campaign released a statement by Clinton’s physician saying that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia two days before.
This sequence of events was more than bizarre. It exemplified the opacity and dissimulation, the changing explanations and outright lies, for which Clinton is known. There couldn’t be a worse way for her to combat her reputation for dishonesty and untrustworthiness than to have a medical episode at a 9/11 memorial, be tight-lipped about what happened, and then say she’d had a serious illness for days.
The media did not come across any better. MSNBC weekend anchor Alex Witt ascribed Clinton’s departure to the New York weather that day, which in her words was “humid,” “horrible,” “horrific,” and “ridiculously awful.” It was 79 degrees. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said Clinton had looked fine to her. Brian Stelter of CNN warned his peers not to give credence to “conspiracy theories.”
A piece on Vox.com described “The Problem With All the Speculation About Hillary Clinton’s Pneumonia,” before speculating about . . . Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia. Patients “can experience a wide range of symptoms, from the very mild to the deadly,” wrote “senior health correspondent” and “evidence enthusiast” Julia Belluz. “It’s also silly to speculate about Hillary Clinton’s medical status because her entire health history is not publicly available.” Maybe that’s the problem?
By the evening of September 11, Chris Cillizza had reversed his opinion of five days prior. “Hillary Clinton’s health just became a real issue in the presidential campaign,” he wrote. “Sunday morning changed the conversation in the race about Clinton’s health. Or rather it will force Clinton to have a conversation about her health in the race.” Now he tells us!
Credit Cillizza for being honest. Might Hillary Clinton be similarly forthright and direct? Sorry, ma’am. I’m afraid the prognosis is negative.