The health of the president is generally a closely-guarded secret, especially when there is a medical problem. In the Cold War era, national security experts worried that an ailing or debilitated president might encourage Soviet aggression. At other times, it has been feared that a presidential illness would lower public confidence, with negative economic and political consequences.As such, there is a history of keeping harsh details of a president's health out of view, only to be uncovered years later. When possible, medical procedures are not discussed or are downplayed, and serious illnesses are portrayed as something fairly innocuous, like the common cold. In recent years, historians have detailed Franklin Roosevelt's extreme limitations caused by his polio and others have documented how John Kennedy dealt with excruciating back pain using heavy medication.If the most egregious example of undisclosed poor presidential health was the almost complete incapacitation of Woodrow Wilson after his 1918 stroke -- leaving most decisions to his wife and one advisor -- the next worse is likely the secret surgery to remove a tumor from Grover Cleveland's mouth. Matthew Algeo tells this improbable tale with great style in "The President is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman who Dared Expose the Truth."As the subtitle explains in the style of a late 19th century headline, a key part of the odd tale is the weird aftermath where the President and his allies used the power of the presidency to squash the reporting of a well-sourced reporter who found out about the surgery in the following weeks. Trading on Cleveland's long-standing reputation for integrity -- proven during his campaign by his admission to fathering a child out of wedlock and providing for that child -- those close to the president were able to cover up the truth by offering consistent denials and by challenging the credibility of E. J. Edwards, the reporter who penned the explosive story, "The President a Very Sick Man," in the Philadelphia Press.Edwards provided the first glimpse of the secret surgery, which took place on a yacht during the week of the July 4th holiday in 1893. A team of doctors was secretly assembled to remove a likely cancerous tumor from Cleveland's upper jaw. The procedure would have been delicate in any setting, as the medical profession was in the midst of its transformation toward 20th Century practices, such as improved sanitary precautions and rigorous doctor education and training. It was even more precarious, though, when carried out by a team of doctors working together for the first time onboard a pleasure boat subject to wind and waves.Although the surgery was successful, the president needed time to recuperate. (Eventually, he would also need a prosthetic to fill in the space where part of his upper jaw was removed.) A planned fishing trip, coupled with the report of a small cold, explained the president's absence and his refusal to speak to any reporters during his convalescence. Only after Cleveland's death would the reporter Edwards enjoy the restoration of his reputation when one of the doctors involved decided to tell the incredible story in the Saturday Evening Post, in order to prevent the crowning case of his career from remaining unknown. Using Edwards' and the doctor's accounts as a foundation, Algeo performed excellent research to flesh out his full account of this incredible incident and its aftermath. He carefully places the surgery, the political cover-up, and the subsequent reporting in revealing context, often humorously, as when he describes the ego-centered competition in Philadelphia journalism at the time. From these pieces, Algeo tells the remarkable story vividly and well, capturing the key personalities and offering the dramatic intrigue of a thrilling mystery.
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