Thursday, November 3, 2011

"The President Is A Sick Man" by Matthew Algeo

This is a short, yet sprawling, account of not only Grover Cleveland's secret surgery aboard a private yacht on Long Island Sound; it is a complete and factual account of all the Presidents in our history who have been ill, and for one reason or another, felt compelled to hide that fact from the public.

At the time President Cleveland had his surgery, for a cancerous lesion in his mouth, cancer was a word that no-one dared to say aloud. It was also at the beginning of his second, non-consecutive term as President. He is the only President to ever accomplish this feat. To add to his worries, the country was in a financial panic over the question of the "free silver" movement, driven largely by western states, where silver was being mined by the tons. This was causing massive inflation, which lead to the Panic of 1893, which is precisely when the President was due to have his surgery.

His desire for secrecy was borne of two things, the first being that he felt it would be bad for the country at such a time; and secondly, he was at complete odds with his Vice-President, Adlai Stevenson, who was a "free silver" adherent. The President clearly did not want to relinquish any power, or authority, to him while he was himself incapacitated. At the time, Vice Presidents were chosen by the political party at the Convention, with the Presidential nominee having no say in the selection. This process would not change until the 1940's. This is what makes this book so compelling, the author takes the time to go beyond the immediate story to paint a more clear picture of events, and how they came to shape our future. That he is able to do so in less than 250 pages is remarkable.

The Presidential Disability and Succession Act (Amendment XXV) was not passed until 1967, which requires the President to notify Congress of his inability to discharge the affairs of state, temporarily relinquishing control to the Vice President. Up until then, matters were largely left to the discretion of the President himself, resulting in some odd circumstances at times. For instance, when Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke (his 4th) in 1919, and the country was on the eve of signing the Treaty of Versailles, it was Edith Wilson, the President's wife, who made the trip to Europe, securing the passage of the treaty. That lopsided and heavy handed treaty, with its punitive measures, was a direct path to World War Two.

The "Baby Ruth" candy bar myth is shattered here, as well. Little Ruth died in 1904, the candy bar made its debut in 1922, during Babe Ruth's heyday. The Curtiss Candy Company, the candy bar's originator, simply wished to avoid paying any royalties to the King of Swat. Can you see why I love this book? Now, on to the story;

June 23rd, 1893 was the day on which the President met with his physician, Joseph Bryant, and laid plans for the surgery. It was to take place aboard the Oneida, a yacht belonging to the President's friend, Commodore Elia Benedict. The surgery would be performed by Dr. William Williams Keen, of Philadelphia.

On June 26th, 3 days after the meeting in the White House, the two physicians met on a ferry in New York Harbor to discuss the final arrangements. The President would board the Oneida on July 1st, after all of the medical equipment and staff were aboard. They would inform the press that the President was going fishing aboard the Oneida, which was a very believable cover story, as the president had logged thousands of miles aboard his friends yacht in previous years. And, the boat would be taking him to his summer home immediately after the surgery. This was also not unusual, as the president had always summered there in his previous administration.

The surgery was successful, and the President went on to serve the remainder of his term, facing all of the political, and financial problems which plagued the nation at the time.

Mr. Algeo has done the seemingly impossible with this book. He has interlaced the story of the President's surgery with both the history of the Presidency in general, while calling attention to the necessity of having transparency in our government. This is a very enjoyable and informative book.

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