Doctor Zebra > Presidential health > Occupational hazards

Occupational Hazards

Some medical hazards go along with the office.
Assassination attempts (between election day and death):
Until after the attempt on Truman, Presidents freely walked the streets, rode horses and otherwise mingled with the public. In fact, George Washington complained of strangers looking into his wife's bedroom 1a.

Emotional Strain

May not be the office, but the campaign.


Handshaking

The handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics. I've seen him do it two million times now, but I couldn't tell you how he does it, the right-handed part of it -- the strength, quality, duration of it, the rudiments of pressing the flesh. I can, however, tell you a whole lot about what he does with his other hand. He is a genius with it. He might put it on your elbow, or up by your biceps: these are basic, reflexive moves. He is interested in you. He is honored to meet you. If he gets any higher up your shoulder -- if he, say, drapes his left arm over your back, it is somehow less intimate, more casual. He'll share a laugh or a secret then -- a light secret, not a real one -- flattering you with the illusion of conspiracy. If he doesn't know you all that well and you've just told him something "important," something earnest or emotional, he will lock in and honor you with a two-hander, his left hand overwhelming your wrist and forearm. He'll flash that famous misty look of his. And he will mean it. 2a
"Didn't they know that it is impossible for a man who has just been shot to shake hands with genuine cordiality." -- Theodore Roosevelt, on declining to shake hands with well wishers 90 minutes after being shot in the chest 4a

Before the days of the auto-pen, autograph requests were another threat to the health of the President's writing hand. See, for example, how William Taft ended his presidency.


Voice Strain

White House Living Conditions

All Presidents except George Washington have occupied the Executive Mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. Until recently, this was neither a healthy house nor a healthy city.

The White House's first air conditioning system, which required 3000 pounds of ice each day, and was then regarded as a "marvel," was installed during the administration of William Howard Taft. During a warm spell in Washington in May 1911, Taft's aide wrote to his sister-in-law:

We have just installed a marvelous system in the executive office for his comfort. We have an arrangement by which we pump cold air into his office. It is funny to go into his own room and see all the windows pulled down as if to keep out the cold. Yet the temperature is actually chilly. It seems to be too chilly for health, but the doctors say not. To go into the adjoining room is like going into a furnace. We use up three thousand pounds of ice a day by the process, but if it makes life endurable for him I suppose the country has no cause for complaint. 5a
Before air conditioning, many Presidents fled the hot Washington summers for safety and for comfort.
The condition of the presidential mansion as I have indicated before, was a disgrace to the nation when I first went to Washington during the McKinley administration, and despite various changes and repairs, it remained in a more or less disgraceful state right up to the time I retired in 1948. At the turn of the century, the walls of the place were constantly damp, the floors were warped, and the stairs were creaky and rickety. I remember once when one of the famous billiard champions of the day was invited to give an exhibition at the White House. He arrived eager and willing, but the table in the billiard room had been so nearly ruined by dampness that he could scarcely drive a ball around it. He soon gave up the attempt.

... It was adjacent to low swampy ground that ran down to the Potomac, and a rainy spell would bring water up as high as what is now Constitution Avenue. [Map] The mosquitoes flourished in the standing water along the flats between the mansion and the river, and the neighborhood was so unhealthy that White House grounds police had to be shifted at regular intervals because so many developed malaria. The President, however, didn't have anybody to shift with. 6a

During at least one President's term, there seems to have been a rat problem in the White House. The doorkeeper remembered:
[Mrs. Grover Cleveland] was very fond of canary birds and mocking birds. As I was making my rounds on one occasion near her room, her canary was near the window sill. A great rat had forced his way into the cage, had just killed the poor little canary and was going to have a feast on him, when I arrived in time to make for him. He burst through the door and made his escape, and Mrs. Cleveland was very sorry for it. I took the mocking bird downstairs where I could have my eye on him for fear the rat might return again. Afterwards Mrs. Cleveland had her pet canary stuffed and put in her room. 7a

Resources
  1. Bromley, Michael L. William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2003.0786414758 Libraries 2003008595.
  2. Anonymous. Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics. New York: Warner Books, 1996.0446604275 Libraries.
    Comment: "Anonymous" was later revealed to be Joel Klein.
  3. Stern, C. C. Braddock's Presidential Trivia. 3rd edition. Herndon, VA: Braddock Communications, Inc., 2001.0931147655 Libraries.
  4. Manners, William. TR and Will: A Friendship that Split the Republican Party. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969. Libraries 69-14838.
  5. Butt, Archibald W. Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday (1930). Volume 1: pages 1-432. Volume 2: pages 433-862. Libraries.
    Comment: Butt, an Army officer, was military aide first to President Theodore Roosevelt and then to President William Taft. On April 14, 1912, Butt was at sea aboard the Titanic returning from a European vacation that Taft had insisted he take. President Taft later said: "When I heard that part of the ship's company had gone down, I gave up hope for the rescue of Major Butt, unless by accident. I knew that he would certainly remain on the ship's deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made that properly fell on one charged, as he would feel himself charged, with responsibility for the rescue of others." Taft was correct. Butt did not survive the sinking.
  6. Smith, Ira R. T.; Morris, Joe Alex. "Dear Mr. President:" The Story of Fifty Years in the White House Mail Room. New York: Julian Messner, 1949. Libraries.
    Comment: Ira Smith was a peppery fellow who ran the White House mail room from 1897 to 1948. He started working during the administration of William McKinley and was the only mail room staffer until the volume of mail made it necessary to hire help during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.
  7. Pendel, Thomas F. Thirty-Six Years in the White House. Washington: Neale Publishing Company, 1902. Libraries.
    Comment: Pendel was door-keeper at the White House from the time of Lincoln to the time of Theodore Roosevelt. Full text is available on-line at loc.gov. It's a rather dry book, and reads as if it were written by an old man. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?lhbcbbib:1:./temp/~~ammem_rEou::