Politics: No really, we feel fine *cough*

When charismatic leaders get injured, the last thing they want is for us to know about it. Simon Usborne reports on the hidden world of poorly politics

The hardest man in politics has put his back out. Scuba-diving, bear-wrestling, tank-driving, judo-fighting Vladimir Putin has not been seen in a ridiculous photocall for weeks, or in many other places for that matter, prompting rumours that the Russian President's last stunt (hang-gliding with migrating cranes – we've all been there) had put him out of action.

Not true, a spokesman said, Putin has merely pulled a muscle in his back and is spending time at home. The spokesman then said something that revealed less about the presidential back than it did the web of secrecy that often obscures the health of our leaders: "We have never tried to conceal it."

Would-be US Presidents must leave their dignity at the White House door (Mitt Romney's medical records reveal high cholesterol and an enlarged prostate) but even in the US, transparency hasn't always been required.

America was effectively run by a female president when Edith Wilson covered for her husband, Woodrow, after his stroke in 1919, the gravity of which was kept secret. After he partially recovered, she said: "I don't know what you men make such a fuss about. I had no trouble running the country when Woody was ill." Franklin Roosevelt's doctors helped conceal his various illnesses (his suspected polio was known but he was rarely photographed in his wheelchair, lest it reveal weakness) and his death in office shocked the world.

After the death of President Georges Pompidou from an undisclosed blood cancer in 1974, François Mitterrand promised to be honest on taking office in 1981. This changed when, months later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, an illness only revealed more than a decade later in Le Grande Secret, a book by the President's doctor that scandalised France in 1996.

The greater the cult of personality, the greater the risk that poor health undermines a leader. That's when rumours of ill health can become weapons. During his rule in Cuba, Fidel Castro has survived Parkinson's and stomach cancer, among many reported illnesses diagnosed by his enemies as often as doctors. Likewise Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has had to fight health rumours despite being declared cancer-free by his doctors.

Even when concealment is not an option, leaders face great pressure to assert their vigour. When Tony Blair had treatment for heart problems in 2003, aides played down its severity but at the time, the scare threatened the image of a leader who, like Putin, had always been seen as supremely fit.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test