John F. Kennedy’s team denied that he was ill during the 1960 Presidential election campaign: he had Addison’s Disease (and had had a mass of other illnesses, being hospitalised 36 times). Franklin Roosevelt’s polio was not exactly a secret, but he took measures to prevent the reporting of it. A doctor who examined him during the 1944 campaign believed that he did not have “the physical capacity to complete a term…it was my opinion that over the four years of another term with its burdens, he would again have heart failure and be unable to complete it.” “FDR” died from a stroke three months into office.
Hillary Clinton’s team has now owned up to her pneumonia – it had little choice but to do otherwise – but the context is rather different. There was no 24/7 coverage and social media in 1960, let alone 1944: no Twitter, Big Brother, Instagram. There was a culture of privacy rather than one of disclosure; a premis of trust in politicians rather than one of distrust. Clinton is an unpopular politician, who would surely be trailing a mainstream Republican in the polls rather than leading Donald Trump in them (though by a margin that has narrowed since Labor Day).
Clinton’s condition is scarcely comparable to Roosevelt’s, though pneumonia is certainly a very serious illness. But while her collapse and its consequences may not prove decisive in the contest, her frailty is a reminder of an uncomfortable fact. Western societies are ageing. Clinton is 68; Trump is 70 (and the state of his health is scarcely an open book, either). The afflicted Kennedy was an emblem of the cult of youth – of bright-eyed politicians re-shaping the world after the years of Eisenhower, Adenauer, De Gaulle, De Gasperi.
He set the tone for much of the next 50 years. During the 1964 election, Harold Wilson presented himself as a similar modernising force. Edward Heath might not have defeated Reginald Maudling for the Conservative leadership had Tory MPs not yearned for energy and vigour. Tony Blair tapped into the Kennedy legacy, proclaiming Britain to be a “young country”. David Cameron told the Conservative Conference in 2005 that “a young, passionate, energetic leader” wouldn’t be enough – “though come to think of it, that might not be such a bad idea”.
Theresa May is a full decade younger than Hillary Clinton, but she and her team mark a shift to what this site has called Grown-Up Government. George Osborne is 45, having become Shadow Chancellor when 33. Philip Hammond, his successor as Chancellor, is 60. David Davis has charge of the Brexit Department, and is 67. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is 64. Other Cabinet members are younger, but there is an older feel about May’s Government than her precedecessors. Like America’s Presidential candidates, it fits the demographic facts.