As the 75-ton yacht Oneida sailed up New York City's East River in early July 1893, almost no one in the country was aware that on board, President Grover Cleveland lay unconscious under general anesthetic. Cleveland's life and possibly, the future of the nation rested that day in the hands of a few surgeons. Even his pretty young wife Frances had not been informed of the President's illness.
When told he would have to undergo surgery for a cancer of the mouth, Cleveland, the 24th President of the U.S., insisted on secrecy. It was he who thought up the idea of the sailing hospital, but rumors of the President's operation eventually leaked out. Said one attending physician: "I did more lying during this period than in all the rest of my life put together." Still, it was 20 years before the full story of the procedure emerged, although surgeons had discovered a malignant cancer and removed much of Cleveland's gums, inner cheek and upper jaw (an artificial rubber jaw replaced the bone).
Methods for dealing publicly with presidential illnesses have changed substantially since then. Bulletins are issued, news conferences are held, and sometimes plans are made for a temporary transfer of power. In 1966, when Lyndon Johnson went to the Bethesda National Naval Hospital for repair of an abdominal hernia, he summoned reporters to his bedside three hours after he left surgery to let them know he was very much in control. Under an informal agreement with Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey had been given permission to exercise the power of the Chief Executive if the President was unable to do so.
In the earlier days of the Republic, however, Presidents and their entourages sometimes felt that their own programs, if not the national security itself, would be vulnerable if a grave illness were admitted. As John B. Moses and Wilbur Cross relate in the book Presidential Courage (W.W. Norton Co., 1980), many Presidents suffered, usually in silence and secrecy, from chronic and painful diseases. George Washington had a giant benign tumor in his leg and was the victim of rheumatism and repeated pneumonia. Andrew Jackson, famous for his stamina and courage, was described in a contemporary article in the Boston Medical School Journal as "a tottering scarecrow in deadly agony," a man in whom "the malaria, the dysentery, the osteomyelitis and the bronchiectasis were going on, and on, and on." But Jackson continued to lead the nation with authority.
Not so Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, during a whistle-stop tour of the nation, the 28th President was struck down near Pueblo, Colo., by an embolism that left him half paralyzed and with slurred speech. Back in Washington he recovered, only to suffer a second and irreversible stroke. During the final 17 months of his second term, the U.S. was shakily ruled by a triumvirate consisting of Wilson's second wife Edith, his White House secretary, Joe Tumulty, and his doctor, Cary Grayson. Cabinet meetings petered out slowly. The first one, held in almost complete, shocked silence, as Wilson's mind wandered, came six months after the stroke. During the course of these meetings, Edith was always close by, and Wilson's attending physician would pop in every few minutes to check on his patient.