This goes for President Biden, former president Donald Trump, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and now, indisputably, 81-year-old Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
McConnell’s second public “freezing” moment, in front of reporters in Kentucky, was even more frightening than the first. He seems to have heard the question well enough, but after it was repeated, McConnell responded with a long, awkward silence. An aide repeated the question, about running for reelection in 2026, but McConnell continued to stare ahead, silently — as if he had an off button and someone pushed it. After a few moments of concern, another aide asked the senator if he wanted to go outside, and after a few more troublingly silent and blank-eyed moments, McConnell finally said, “I’m okay.” It is good that he was later able to answer questions. But clearly something is wrong with the senator, months after he was hospitalized with a concussion, and he is noticeably more gaunt and paler than we’re used to seeing him.
McConnell’s office says that in both instances, he just felt lightheaded. On Thursday, Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician of Congress, issued a statement declaring, “I have consulted with Leader McConnell and conferred with his neurology team. After evaluating yesterday’s incident, I have informed Leader McConnell that he is medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned.”
That’s good to hear, but it would be easier to accept the staff’s assurances if they came with an assessment by McConnell’s personal doctor. (Did we know McConnell has a neurology team?) Or, even better, if these statements came with some test results. And, even better than that, with McConnell’s doctor going in front of reporters to answer questions about McConnell’s health.
While it would be preferable to believe that this episode was just a matter of dehydration or some minor issue that will go away quickly, it would be easier to believe that assessment if it came from a medical professional whose way of making a living did not depend on McConnell staying in office.
After the first time McConnell froze while talking to reporters, I said on “Meet the Press” that I wished McConnell would choose a policy of maximum disclosure. “We had pictures of Reagan’s hemorrhoids back in the 1980s!” I misremembered; there was a diagram of the president’s colon during the removal of polyps.
The point is that the Reagan White House recognized that an American president in his 70s — how young that seems from the perspective of 2023 — would generate legitimate concerns about his health and ability to perform the duties of his office. Reagan’s team concluded the right response was to give voters an excruciating amount of information about his health. It’s unlikely that many Americans really wanted to get a good look inside Reagan’s colon, but we got it anyway.
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The contrast with today’s lawmakers is stark and unflattering. It took two incidents with McConnell freezing in front of cameras to get a statement from a doctor. Feinstein gets visibly confused and has to be reminded how to vote, and yet she remains in office. The Trump White House’s statements about his coronavirus infection were often wrong, contradictory or confusing. And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre recently said of Biden during an appearance on CNN, “It is hard for us to keep up with this president, who is constantly, constantly working every day to get things done!”
It is extremely difficult to believe that Jean-Pierre, who appears to be in good health and who is in her 40s, is having a hard time keeping up with the 80-year-old Biden. If she really means what she’s saying, maybe she should see a doctor, too.
A politician can spin a lot of things, but the state of a politician’s health can be hidden from the public only for so long. I realize no politician wants to leave office because of health problems. But they’re not in those jobs to make themselves feel good and important in old age; they’re in those jobs to serve the public. McConnell, Biden, Feinstein — they have all been in public office for decades. And if they want to stay in office, the absolute minimum they can do is provide the public with full and unvarnished information — no minimizing, no begrudging the legitimacy of these questions — about their health.