Cough up the medical records

Published 10:24 pm Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I won’t waste your time trying to use Feeling Poorlygate as an excuse to play amateur doctor — plenty of people in the basket of deplorables are doing that already — because here’s the sagacious bottom line:

Given what we already know about the 2016 presidential candidates — combining their ages, this is the oldest duo in American history — it’s imperative that they both release their medical records.

Only then can we begin to put Hillary Clinton’s ill health episodes, and notably her latest one, in the proper perspective. Only then can we begin to determine whether Donald Trump’s rotten health habits — four hours sleep a night and an insatiable intake of junk food — are blinking yellow lights for an overweight 70-year-old man.

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But neither of these candidates is particularly transparent, and there’s no requirement that they come clean on the medical front. Indeed, their predecessors rarely went the extra mile. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney didn’t share those personal histories in 2012. John McCain did it in 2008, but with a big caveat: He dumped 1,000 pages on a select few reporters, and gave them only a few hours to read up.

So when Trump tweeted in August that he was willing to “release detailed medical records,” that he had “no problem in doing so,” it just read like a head fake.

But we do need to know, not just because the presidency is such a grueling job, but because in the absence of hard information, the conspiracy theories continue to metastasize — as we’ve long seen already, like when Karl Rove cited Clinton’s 2012 concussion and conjured brain damage.

And the public wants a lot more info. According to a national poll last month by the survey firm Morning Consult, 64 percent of registered voters want Clinton and Trump to release detailed records, a 9-percent hike since the question was asked in May.

Still, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the public will rationally assess the released info. Take a look at what’s happening right now: Clinton’s doctor says she has pneumonia, and the usual loons and trolls, their hair afire, spent their Sunday tweeting pneumonia death stats.

This is a big a reason why leaders often embrace secrecy — as arguably evidenced best by FDR. Post-polio, he hid the fact that he couldn’t walk; back then, most Americans didn’t look kindly on “cripples.” The truth would have damaged him politically; only after his death did people learn that Hitler was beaten by a guy who couldn’t stand.

But now that we’re supposedly more sophisticated about these things, and about modern medicine, the scales should tilt toward transparency. At least the rational among us would know more than we know now.

And lest we forget, we know a lot less about Trump’s medical fitness than we do about Clinton’s. All we’ve got from the demagogue is a four-paragraph letter written in five minutes nine months ago in the back of a limo.

Trump’s gastroenterologist, Harold Bornstein, did the honors, declaring in suspiciously Trumpy language that “his strength and stamina are extraordinary,” that his lab results “are astonishingly excellent” (no doctor talks that way), and that of course Trump would be the healthiest leader in the history of human endeavor.

With Clinton off the road for the next few days, the health speculation will only get worse. In theory, the best — one that has been floated for years — is to bring in an independent team of doctors to fully examine both candidates. The idea is to depoliticize the situation as much as possible.

The potential upside, at minimum, is that the candidates (especially Clinton) would no longer be accused of hiding anything. On the other hand, I fear that everything is so politicized that if Clinton were judged to be basically healthy, the trolls would simply retaliate by sliming the independent doctors.

But here’s one thing we can say for real: The vice-presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence is suddenly more important.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at