I’ll give some background below for anyone interested, but the short of it:
**I’m interested in the hypothetical here-if a real sitting President was revealed to have a neurodegenerative disease, one that can sometimes impact “executive function” (meaning your brain’s ability to make decisions) is there any realistic chance that President would be reelected? Would he be impeached? Would he be removed from power by the 25th amendment? **
Due to a slate of very old candidates (Trump and Hillary are near the end of the bell curve for Presidential ages, and Sanders would be the oldest person ever to enter the office) I’ve been thinking about the consequences of Presidential physical and mental infirmity.
FDR was able to manage physical infirmity pretty well, but the Presidency (while mentally demanding no doubt during the Great Depression and WWII) was a different job back then in terms of the physical demands. The President was super important but was “less a celebrity”, and FDR did a lot of his reaching out to the people through radio that he could record in his office.
Woodrow Wilson suffered grave infirmity at the end of his presidency due to a debilitating stroke. His wife sought to conceal this, and several important aides were complicit in this act. They even fabricated an interview with a reporter to make Wilson seem okay. He was bedridden for weeks. Even today we don’t fully know the impacts on his mental function, due to the desire to hide the scope of his condition. His Presidency continued on for 1.5 years after he left office.
We know that Wilson wasn’t truly a vegetable or anything, he gave some addresses/speeches even in retirement, and participated in certain civic activities with his wife. We know that his physical infirmity continued and he never truly recovered from that, strokes are complex even today. There are people who have strokes and suffer limb paralysis but who still maintain all of their cognition, but without Wilson having been subjected to any high level of scrutiny or modern medical tests we will never know his condition. What I do know is that a similar situation in 2016 would’ve gone down far differently. Wilson’s condition eventually became public knowledge to the public, but it took some months for it to leak out, and again a very different world in 1920 responded to it very differently than the 24 hour news cycle would respond today.
Even without the 25th Amendment, the original text of the constitution provided for the Vice President taking over the President’s duties if the President was “incapable” but left it to Congress to hash out the details, and since there had never been a hashing out, it was unclear what would need to happen to remove Wilson from power. As it was, no one really wanted to push the issue and figure out how to certify Wilson as “incapable” and open a large constitutional can of worms.
But that is two examples of President’s suffering a degree of infirmity. The NBC series The West Wing presented another–a President with multiple sclerosis. In the NBC series the President conceals his MS diagnosis (he has early stage relapsing-remitting MS, so when he doesn’t have an attack he appears perfectly healthy, and his overall disease hadn’t progressed enough to lead to any obvious physical incapacity) before his election, and wins. But he reveals (due to a long chain of events) that he has MS a few months before “election season” starts in his first term. In the show, while he takes a drubbing in the polls right after concealing he has MS and that he lied about it, he is able to rehabilitate his image, destroys his Republican challenger in a debate and wins a landslide reelection.