Privacy row after Clinton pneumonia diagnosis

Fit to lead? Clinton was only able to attend 90 minutes of Sunday’s 9/11 memorial event. © PA

Hillary Clinton’s health is in doubt after she stumbled out of an event on Sunday. Now even some allies have called on her to be less secretive. How transparent should our politicians be?

Hillary Clinton’s aides helped her to stand and gently coaxed her towards a waiting van. Her knees buckled. It may only have been a brief stumble, but her abrupt departure from a 9/11 memorial event may have changed the race for the US presidency.

Clinton’s spokesman said she had felt ‘overheated’ and suffered a ‘medical episode’. Her doctor then revealed she had been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday. The story went global, featuring on the front pages of major newspapers and at the top of news programmes. Many commentators asked why details had taken so long to emerge.

US voters care more than most about their politicians’ health. Presidents have regular physicals and the data is released publicly. The subject even led to an ongoing storyline in the TV drama The West Wing. This contrasts starkly with the attitude in France, where President Mitterrand had cancer for 11 years and kept it secret.

But Clinton has been keen to guard her privacy. She has dismissed recent rumours about her health, accusing opponents of promoting a ‘dangerous conspiracy’. She has been similarly coy when faced with criticism over security of emails, potential conflict of interest in the charity Clinton Foundation, and speeches to Wall Street banks. She has also resisted having a close press pool follow her on the campaign trail.

And yesterday her rival Donald Trump said he would release details about his health, with ‘very, very specific’ details.

In the fallout, even several sympathetic voices say she should now open up more. Former Democratic Party strategist David Axelrod tweeted: ‘Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What’s the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy?’

Top journalist Jill Abramson, a supporter, said Clinton should ‘now become radically transparent’. But James Rubin, a former adviser to the Clintons, said this would give ‘further fodder’ to a press which is not holding the candidates to an equal standard.

How much should our politicians disclose?

Smoke and mirrors

Everything, say some. Hiding information shows contempt for the public, especially when those seeking office use their private lives to curate a public image. And in the modern age, secrecy is ineffective: Clinton’s privacy obsession has merely encouraged the rumour-mongers and conspiracy theorists. Come clean!

What nonsense reply more traditional voices. We all have a right to separate professional and personal lives. Why should politicians be so different from other role models who we admire for their achievements despite private flaws. Steve Jobs? A control freak who threw tantrums. Nelson Mandela? A perpetual womaniser. Elon Musk? A pathological workaholic. And so the list goes on ...

You Decide

  1. Would the state of a politician’s health be likely to change the way you vote?
  2. Should politicians be transparent about every issue the public shows an interest in?


  1. Make two lists: one showing the information the public deserves to know about its politicians, and one showing information which should remain private. Discuss your lists as a class.
  2. In pairs, write and perform a short, combative interview on the issues raised in this article. One of you should play Hillary Clinton, and the other should be a hostile TV news anchor.

Some People Say...

“If you have power over people, they should be able to ask you anything they like.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does it really matter that a presidential candidate has fallen ill?
If Clinton’s illness proved serious, it could impede her ability to do the job she is running for. But for now, the important issue is about disclosure. How much do you need — or deserve — to know about the politicians who serve you? If you were running for office, how much of your private life would you be willing to share with the public?
What happens if Clinton pulls out of the race through ill health?
The 445 people on the Democratic National Committee would choose a new candidate. The most likely alternatives would be Joe Biden, the current vice-president, or Tim Kaine, running to be vice-president this year. Perhaps, though, they would nominate someone else — like Bernie Sanders, whom Clinton beat in the primary.

Word Watch

11 years
The public were not told until 1992 about Mitterrand’s prostate cancer diagnosed shortly after his election in 1981.
Her health
Subject to speculation since she suffered a blood clot in 2012. Last month, Clinton’s physician said she was ‘in excellent health and fit to serve as president of the United States’.
In 2015 it emerged Clinton stored official emails on a private server, contrary to State Department rules. Some have criticised her furtive handling of the subject.
Clinton Foundation
Set up by her husband Bill it took donations from foreign governments while she was secretary of state.
Big banks paid her more than $2m for speeches in 2013 alone. She has refused to release transcripts of them, despite pressure from primary opponent Bernie Sanders.
Abramson also wrote that Clinton is ‘scrutinised more heavily than men’.
For example, Clinton’s daughter Chelsea introduced her when she accepted her party’s nomination in July.
Citizen journalism
A recent trend in which ordinary people use technology to report on events, for example by filming them.

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