If we expect politicians like Hillary Clinton to be infallible, we get the leaders we deserve

Margaret Thatcher made her most far-reaching decisions on only four hours’ sleep – and sometimes it showed

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The Independent Online

The sight of any human being beginning to faint is peculiar. More so if one is very famous, like Hillary Clinton, and one’s gait and steely composure is globally recognisable. 

Fainting is weird to observe. Eerie, even. Yet at the same time it is wholly, perfectly natural. Completely human. The body, in the grip of illness, has temporarily eschewed the responsibility of balance and cerebral control. It happens to thousands of humans, for thousands of reasons, daily: in the street, at work, in restaurants, at public ceremonies. Fainting at weddings is exceptionally common due to nerves, skipping meals and heat exhaustion. 

Thankfully for Clinton she was flanked by a team of minders and therefore avoided thudding to the floor gracelessly like a sack of spuds. Unluckily for Clinton, however, she was flanked also by the world’s media, and now her wonky stumble is world news. And it is quite literally “a sign of weakness”. 

Clinton is understood to be suffering from pneumonia, which many onlookers – myself included – would class as a relatively serious, but commonplace and treatable, condition. But some have lapped the incident up gleefully, seizing it as evidence of Clinton’s unsuitability for power. In some wacky cases, it’s being used proof that she has “six months to live”, that her campaign is being held afloat by mega-injections, back braces and body doubles. 

Leaving the more tin-foil hat-adorned theories aside, one thing is for certain: Hillary Clinton was damned if she attended that 9/11 ceremony with pneumonia, and certainly damned if she skipped it and turned in a doctor’s note instead. 

Clinton leaves apartment after 'episode' at 9/11 memorial

A winning feature we expect in the modern leader – not only in America, but in the UK too – is complete infallibility. Age and illness, mental as well as physical, cannot besmirch them. 

Last week, I read a shocking accusation that Clinton, aged 68, may be wearing a hearing aid. Christ, I thought, I’m already at the point of leaning in and accusing young people of mumbling and I’m a sprightly 42. There is no hope for me, or you perhaps, in power.

My main puzzlement over Clinton’s illness is how people in her position are not gripped by malady more often. Or, in fact, continuously? Political leaders’ wellness secrets have far more value than Deliciously Ella and the brigade of winsome chia-soakers. 

Clinton’s is a life of irregular eating, acute stress, school visits full of germ-incubating ankle-biters and being whisked into public municipal buildings with germ-strewn bannisters.

Where are all the politicians with cold sores, stomach ulcers and “that flu bug that’s going around that they just can’t shake”? Carefully hidden, I suppose.

And if our public distaste for seeing physically sick leaders is strong, I fear we find the mentally ill extra intolerable. There is a paradox that to be someone who wants to lead the world from an early age – to change it, to make an impact – is surely more likely to be someone more sensitive and prone to introspection? Yet once these people reach power, and are exposed to life and death responsibility, then the public are intolerant to the notion they may suffer anxiety attacks, bouts of depression, clinical depression or temporary breakdowns. 

There is no room in leadership to have a week off to lie in a back bedroom and work through a depression, to adjust to an uptake in medication, to load up on carbs for strength, to get some regular sleep, to watch a funny box set and gear up to be brilliant all over again.

The modern political VIP should be ever effervescent, virus-repellent and non-flapped in the face of the frankly horrific. We want, it seems, robots. We reject even the remotely vulnerable – and, by turn, we get exactly the leaders we deserve. 

Nobody ever saw George Osborne high on Lemsip Max, nodding out in a pile of phlegm-festooned Kleenex at PMQs. Nigel Farage crawled from an actual air crash, declared it a mere flesh wound, and went on to lead Britain out of Europe. 

Margaret Thatcher, we are often reminded, made her most far-reaching decisions on only four hours’ sleep. I feel this sometimes showed.

And now Clinton’s task – if she desires to lead the Free World – will be to recover from pneumonia in, say, three or four days, and be back instantly on a round-the-clock handshaking turbo-schedule. Only then will we be convinced she’s the ‘right sort’ of human to lead. 

Even Superman was cut a bit of slack around Kryptonite.