BOOK REVIEW / A dangerous virus in the body politic: 'When Illness Strikes the Leader' - Jerrold M Post & Robert S Robins: Yale, 19.95 pounds

Share
Related Topics
EARLIER this week, the Chinese Premier, Li Peng, cancelled a trip to Mongolia because he had been taken to hospital with a cold. It must have been quite a nasty one: most of us grumble a bit when the dreaded 'cold' strikes, but . . . hospital? Presumably, Li Peng was sicker than anyone was admitting, but there is something rum about our willingness to swallow sugar-coated versions of the medical truth. We can be pretty sure there is something wrong with a man who doesn't mind appearing such a sissy. Rushed into hospital for a cold? It's the geopolitical equivalent of holding the matron's thermometer against the radiator in the hope of an off-games slip.

If Jerrold Post and Robert Robins are to be believed, Li Peng was probably suffering from something like a retarded myocardial infarction, with progressive cerebral arteriosclerosis, and perhaps a multiple pulmonary occlusion or two thrown in for good measure. Their subject, a good one, is the ill health that dogs VIPs, and the damaging culture of secrecy that surrounds the slightest change in their temperature.

It is not surprising, as the authors point out, that so many presidents and prime ministers should have had health problems. Quite apart from the exceptional stress in their lives, they are almost always getting on a bit. But it is certainly true that the subject is not much discussed. Of the 35,000 photographs at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, only two show the great man in a wheelchair. The consideration of health in the existing literature is, by all accounts, 'spotty'.

It seems odd that our obsession with health should fade when it comes to political debate. Top politicians offer us a robust and energetic image, and we seem happy to go along with it. Perhaps we think they must be cuckoo to start with, and regard other maladies as small beer, or none of our business.

But maybe we shouldn't be so delicate. The list of VIPs with depressing symptoms is almost endless. It embraces all the celebrity dictators - Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin - but also a disheartening number of democrats. When the 76-year-old Winston Churchill ran for office in 1951, for instance, he was riddled with broken parts:

'Scarcely an organ remained unaffected. He had significant illnesses affecting his heart, brain, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, skin and eyes. His medical history included several attacks of pneumonia, a heart attack, a major stroke, two episodes of cerebral ischemia, diverticulitis, inflammation affecting the eyes, eczema, and intermittent severe depression.'

No wonder he was depressed. In one sense, the idea of carrying on in the face of all those exotic diseases speaks of a heroic stamina. In another, it is plain madness. Anyway, Churchill won by 17 seats.

The ability of the political winners to shield followers or voters from the true facts depends on two things: the stealth of doctors and the easy availability of drugs. If the illness doesn't drive you round the bend, the treatment might. Hitler's personal physician, Theodore Morell, was so sharp in administering narcotic injections that he was nicknamed 'the Meister-Jabber'. His diary listed 73 medications he gave to the Fuhrer, including:

'Cardiazol, a cardiac stimulant; several variants of belladonna; barbituates, cortisone; Orchikrin, a combination of male hormones, an extract of bull testes; hormones from the female placenta; an array of powerful narcotics; laxatives and enemas.' He also received daily cocaine treatment for chronic sinusitis.

The authors' interest in all this is not merely morbid. The historical assumption behind their work is that individuals do make a difference, and that the work of one man can change the world. It comes as a refreshing corrective to the notion that our leaders are the passive agents of larger forces. When the leaders of the Soviet coup against Gorbachev were rounded up, they were deep in their cups: the whole adventure was not much more than a drunken prank - the high- level equivalent of a medical student nicking a policeman's helmet. And when Hitler launched operation Barbarossa, it wasn't the expansionist Third Reich opposing the Bolshevik menace, it was a mad, bad gesture by a man who was, by the sound of it, totally zonked on the Jab-Meister's special brew.

When Illness Strikes the Leader is composed in a polite, courtly key that borrows Machiavellian terms and an arch, pseudo-scientific tone well-suited to its theme. At times the authors sound like a couple of sly policemen addressing the court with tongue-in-cheek sobriety: 'Decisions made under the influence of stimulants, which can produce a heady overoptimism, are quite different from those made under the influence of tranquilizers, which may cloud the sensorium'.

After a few pages, even factual descriptions come to sound like crafty diagnoses. Ataturk, we learn, suffered from Collective Denial of Mortality; President Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea was plagued by Unconstrained Paranoia (Reign of Terror). These things are hard to shake off - almost as bad as colds. In a marvellous series of chapter headings towards the end, Marcos is held to be a victim of Terminal Control, Papandreou labours under the malign influence of Terminal Machismo, and de Gaulle bears the scars of Terminal Grandiosity. This was so complete and so dispiriting that some wag referred to France's glorious culture of Liberte, Fraternite, Senilite.

The combination of serious illness and even more serious drug abuse is, as we might expect, anything but conducive to shrewd and far-sighted statesmanship. When Illness Strikes the Leader lists the examples. At the Yalta Conference in 1945 Roosevelt's judgement was impaired by 'a combination of hypertension, diffuse atherosclerosis, and congestive heart failure'. According to Churchill's doctor, 'He intervened very little in discussions, sitting with his mouth open. . . . He has all the symptoms of hardening of the arteries of the brain.'

Well, we think, thanks for telling us. And that's the whole point. The naturally covert reflexes of government, and the historic discretion of doctors, combine to hush up anything that might be interpreted as bad news. President Georges Pompidou kept quiet about his multiple myeloma for well over a year, while the Shah of Iran concealed the truth about his lymphocytic leukaemia even longer - long enough to lose control of his country as well as his life. The year he found out about his fatal condition, he broke with Opec and sparked the world oil crisis - perhaps prompted by a desire to accelerate the transformation of Iran.

Even death can be kept quiet. The amazingly protracted demise of General Franco led to a nice joke, cited here, which describes someone asking Prince Juan Carlos of Spain, the heir-in-waiting, whether he wanted the good news or the bad news:

'Tell me the good news.'

'Franco is dead.'

'What's the bad news?'

'You will have to tell him.'

In the end, despite all the po-faced recitation of medical data, this is a book about power and secrecy. Illness, the authors show, is a serious virus in the body politic, and it does not seem likely that the new information order will include reliable data on agonising VIP ulcers and bad Tory gums. But who knows? Perhaps, from now on, top interviewers will take a different tack. Less about personalities, more about peritonitis. Wouldn't it be fun if one day somebody asked John Major whether he was planning to visit Washington any time soon, and he replied: 'What, with my hip?'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Consultant - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to sell somethin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Graphic Designer / Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a Junior Graphic Designer / ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Finance Assistant - Automotive

£15500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: General Maintenance Person - Automotive

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An air strike against Isis by the US-led coalition in Kobani, Syria  

US-led airstrikes in Syria: Only two civilian deaths have been officially recognised – that would be extraordinary, if it were true

Chris Woods
 

A promised 'women's museum' opens as a Jack the Ripper exhibit tonight, and I won't take it lying down

Becky Warnock
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen