If Hillary Clinton is inaugurated president next January, she’ll be the second-oldest person ever to take that initial oath. At age 69 years, 88 days, she’ll be topped only by Ronald Reagan, who was 261 days older — 69 years, 349 days — at his inauguration in 1981.
Should Donald Trump win, he would be the oldest president, aged 70 years, 220 days at his inauguration.
For most of our nation’s history until Reagan, though, the oldest president ever was William Henry Harrison. He was 68 years and 23 days old when he was sworn in on April 4, 1841. He was also the first president to die in office. After his inauguration he walked from the Capitol back to the White House through a pouring rain, and died 30 days later.
He died of pneumonia.
Pneumonia is no longer the terror that it was in Harrison’s day, but it’s still a serious threat. As recently as the early 20th century it was the lead killer among infectious diseases and the third leading cause of death overall. There was no cure. The mortality rate was 25%. Since the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s, mortality has dropped to below 1%.
It’s still the eighth leading cause of death, and still the No. 1 deadliest infectious disease, with an annual U.S. toll of about 50,000. For most people, though, it’s no longer considered a life-threatening disease. The main exceptions, the groups most at risk, are persons with compromised immune systems, children under 5 and adults over 65.
Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia may well be a minor case and well under control, as her team seemed to indicate in its few statements after fessing up on Sunday. Despite her age and the punishing pace of the campaign, it may well be that her illness is no cause for alarm.
What is alarming is that she learned on Friday that she had an illness that many consider serious, but decided to keep the information to herself. At the end of a week in which Donald Trump managed to close the gap and pull nearly even with her in the polls, she chose to double down on the very behavior that voters find most alienating in her: hiding the truth, prevaricating, pretending all is well when it isn’t.
What’s infuriating is that even after her illness caught up with her on Sunday morning and she was hustled unceremoniously out of the September 11 memorial ceremony, she continued to cover up. For nearly eight hours, from the time she left Ground Zero at 9:30 a.m. until her pneumonia was disclosed at 5:15 p.m., the mystery of her condition dominated the news cycle. Throughout the day, while Americans anxiously awaited word, the Clinton camp was all but silent. And what little was said was dishonest — most importantly, her chipper remark as she left her daughter’s apartment close to noon: “I’m feeling great. It’s a beautiful day in New York.” She knew she had pneumonia, but rather than tell the truth, she acted exactly the way her worst detractors expect her to act.
Worse still, she acted as though she doesn’t understand the significance of her actions as a candidate for president of the United States. The president cannot disappear, in obvious physical distress, and leave the nation and the world wondering for eight hours what’s going on. That sort of uncertainty would rattle the financial markets and unsettle the international community. A president needs to know that. So does a candidate for the presidency.
All that is alarming. What’s most frightening about Clinton’s behavior is that she is what stands between the world and Donald Trump.
If this were an ordinary election and she were running against a Jeb Bush or John McCain or even a third coming of George W. Bush, her mishandling of her candidacy would be disappointing to liberals, but nothing more. The differences between the Republican and Democratic parties are over policy. There are profound disagreements between the two camps over what’s best for the nation. But that’s the bottom line: the good of the nation. The Republic would survive. That’s how democracy works.
Donald Trump is a different story. His shortcomings aren’t related to his policies or principles, but to his lack of them. It’s not that he lies — all politicians lie — but that he doesn’t seem to know when he’s doing it. It’s not that he’s aggressive and bullying, but that his choice of enemies is determined by his thin skin and sense of personal aggrievement rather than any sense of national interest or even basic decency. He attacked Khizr Khan, father of a fallen war hero, because Khan insulted him. He praised Vladimir Putin because Putin praised him. He can’t help himself. Something went very wrong early on and left him damaged. He can’t see the world beyond himself.
Worse, he thinks he’s acting properly. “If he says great things about me,” Trump said of Putin during the NBC commanders’ forum, “I’m going to say great things about him.”
It’s not that Trump is unqualified to be president. We’ve had unqualified presidents, and we’ve survived. Trump is something else. He’s a threat. For him to win the presidency is unthinkable. But Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of her candidacy is making the unthinkable possible. Her behavior on Sunday finally made that clear.
Clinton began her government career staffing the Watergate hearings. She should remember that era’s most important lesson. To paraphrase Richard Nixon on his notorious tapes, it’s not the pneumonia that gets you, it’s the cover-up.
Trump can’t be fixed. What’s wrong with him is baked into his character. It’s who and what he is. But Clinton’s flaw is a bad habit. She can change it, and she must.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).