C Is for Concussion

C Is for Concussion

Wall Street Journal

How not to suppress a political rumor.

By James Taranto

Mrs. Clinton coughs in Cleveland. Photo: Associated Press

Hillary Clinton is in excellent health, so shut up: That’s a summary of the media narrative that emerged last month after Donald Trump questioned whether Mrs. Clinton has “mental and physical stamina.” A Puffington Host headline proposed: “Let’s Call The Conspiracy Theories About Hillary’s Health What They Are.” What are they? You guessed it: “The subtext of the rumors spouted by Trump and his crew of armchair doctors is clear: [Mrs.] Clinton is biologically unfit to lead,” asserted senior reporter Melissa Jeltsen. “She’s a woman, after all.”

As evidence, Jeltsen cites a comment from “forty-six years ago” by Edgar Berman, a retired physician and “close confidant” of Hubert H. Humphrey, to the effect “that women were temperamentally unsuited to hold high office because of their ‘raging hormonal imbalance.’ ” Forty-six years ago, Trump was 24 and Mrs. Clinton was 22. His conspiracy against her has been a long time in the making, hasn’t it?

Two days later, the site published a post by contributor David Seaman, who was more open to theories about Mrs. Clinton’s health. It included a link to a video by Paul Joseph Watson of the conspiracy site Infowars, titled “The Truth About Hillary’s Bizarre Behavior.”

The video strikes this columnist as not credible. It opens, for instance, with a clip of Mrs. Clinton smiling at reporters while wildly bobbing her head up and down. That’s certainly weird behavior, but there is a plausible nonmedical explanation: According to the Washington Post’s David Weigel, the reporters who witnessed the scene “interpreted her exaggerated head-bobbing as a joke at how she’d been suddenly surrounded—and as a successful attempt at ending the scrum.”

As evidence, Jeltsen cites a comment from “forty-six years ago” by Edgar Berman, a retired physician and “close confidant” of Hubert H. Humphrey, to the effect “that women were temperamentally unsuited to hold high office because of their ‘raging hormonal imbalance.’ ” Forty-six years ago, Trump was 24 and Mrs. Clinton was 22. His conspiracy against her has been a long time in the making, hasn’t it?

Two days later, the site published a post by contributor David Seaman, who was more open to theories about Mrs. Clinton’s health. It included a link to a video by Paul Joseph Watson of the conspiracy site Infowars, titled “The Truth About Hillary’s Bizarre Behavior.”

The video strikes this columnist as not credible. It opens, for instance, with a clip of Mrs. Clinton smiling at reporters while wildly bobbing her head up and down. That’s certainly weird behavior, but there is a plausible nonmedical explanation: According to the Washington Post’s David Weigel, the reporters who witnessed the scene “interpreted her exaggerated head-bobbing as a joke at how she’d been suddenly surrounded—and as a successful attempt at ending the scrum.”

But if the Puffington Host was trying to tamp down conspiracy theories, its next move was probably ill-advised. Real Clear Politics reports that Seaman posted a video to YouTube “saying that he was terminated from his job without warning“ and that the post in question (along with another one) was deleted. Sure enough, if you go to Seaman’s archive page, you’ll see the two headlines in question (the first and third ones in the list), but if you click on either, you get a blank page with an “editor’s note”: “This post is no longer available on the Huffington Post [sic].”

The topic must really be taboo if it results in such action from a site that will publish just about anything. And plenty of more-mainstream sites have been denying there is anything wrong with Mrs. Clinton’s health. Weigel’s Post piece was titled “Armed With Junk Science and Old Photos, Critics Question #HillarysHealth.” Similar headlines come from the New Yorker (“The Far Right’s Obsession With Hillary’s Health”) and the Atlantic (“Questions About Hillary’s Health: The Birtherism of 2016”).

Our favorite is a mocking column from the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh:

In Hillary Clinton’s inner circle, it’s common knowledge that there are times she’s so low-energy that she blanks out for hours. When that happens, she is given to strange mental spells during which she has little or no control over what she says and does. She sometimes mutters things no one can understand.

My colleagues in the mainstream media are covering all this up, but the time has come to speak out. We simply can’t elect a president subject to such mysterious health issues.

What’s that you say?

It’s nothing?

It’s just that she . . . sleeps at night, like the rest of us.

Trump has said as much too, as Politico notes:

Donald Trump seemingly will not rest until the world thinks Hillary Clinton needs a nap.

The Republican nominee took to Twitter yet again Friday night to question his Democratic challenger’s physical well-being, repeating his claim that she’s always asleep.

“#WheresHillary? Sleeping!!!!!” Trump tweeted. The Republican nominee has repeatedly alleged recently that [Mrs.] Clinton’s health is failing (Clinton’s doctor pronounced her health “excellent” last year in a letter released by the campaign).

It is the nature of conspiracy theories that they are unfalsifiable: Believers frame efforts at debunking as evidence that the debunkers are in on the conspiracy.

But one needn’t be a conspiracy theorist to recognize groupthink—in this case, to expect that liberal journalists will try to comfort Mrs. Clinton, whether or not she is afflicted. Discounting Infowars need not preclude reading the Post, New Yorker, Atlantic, et al., with a skeptical eye.

And some evidence has surfaced to belie the insistence that Mrs. Clinton is in excellent health so shut up. On Friday afternoon, the FBI released a heavily redacted report on its criminal investigation into the mishandling of classified information while Mrs. Clinton was secretary of State. CNBC reports:

Hillary Clinton told the FBI she did not recall all the briefings she received on handling sensitive information as she made the transition from her post as U.S. secretary of state, due to a concussion suffered in 2012, according to a report released Friday. . . .

Said the report, “Clinton said she received no instructions or direction regarding the preservation or production of records from (the) State (Department) during the transition out of her role as Secretary of State in 2013.

“However, in December of 2012, [Mrs.] Clinton suffered a concussion and then around the New Year had a blood clot (in her head). Based on her doctor’s advice, she could only work at State for a few hours a day and could not recall every briefing she received,” the report said.

Journalists spend weeks trying to discredit questions about Mrs. Clinton’s health, and then it turns out Mrs. Clinton raised questions about her own health as an excuse for the FBI. That doesn’t exactly enhance the debunkers’ credibility.

Then, as the New York Post reports (with video), Mrs. Clinton opened a Labor Day speech in Cleveland with a four-minute coughing fit. She joked that the cause was a psychological disorder: “Every time I think about Trump, I get allergic.” There’s also video in which her uncontrolled expectoration halts a campaign-plane press gaggle (during a question about hacking, as Scott Adams notes).

Of course a bad cough isn’t necessarily a grave symptom; one can have a frog in one’s throat without being in immediate danger of croaking. But it’s not a good image for someone trying to convince voters she’s in perfect health—or for media trying to convince readers and viewers.

Besides, imagine if Bob Dole or John McCain—both just a few years older than Mrs. Clinton when they were running for president—had hacked for four minutes at the start of a speech. Wouldn’t there be a lot of talk about whether they were too old and frail to serve?

In fact, there was plenty of such talk even absent such an episode. In 1995 a cover of Time, then an influential weekly magazine, asked: “Is Dole Too Old for the Job?” and answered: “The G.O.P. front runner says he’s 72 years young, but the age issue won’t fade away.”

In 2008 the NBC News website ran an Associated Press dispatch under the headline “1 in 4 Chance McCain May Not Survive 2nd Term.” McCain, who turned 80 last month, is on track to beat those odds and is seeking a sixth Senate term.

Generally it has been Republicans, including also Ronald Reagan, who’ve received the is-he-too-old treatment from the media. Until this year, one couldn’t put that down to partisan bias, for GOP nominees have tended to be older than Democratic ones. Since 1968 the Democratic nominee has been older than the Republican one only once, in 2004. Mrs. Clinton, who turns 69 next month, is the first Democratic presidential nominee over 61 since 1948—and the oldest one in the party’s 188-year history.

Of the 17 Republicans who sought their party’s presidential nomination this year, 15 are younger than Mrs. Clinton. But Trump, 70, is one of the superannuated two (George Pataki, 71, is the other). Our sense is that compared with the treatment of earlier septuagenarian candidates, the press has made less fuss about Trump’s age—maybe because he so often fails to act it, maybe because with Mrs. Clinton as his opponent, the double standard would be too glaring.

Though not too glaring for the Puffington Host, which last week ran a piece by Jennifer Gunter—whose bio reads “OB/GYN, writer, sexpert, defender of evidence-based medicine, Canadian Spice”—titled “Science Says Trump Is More Likely Than [Mrs.] Clinton to Have a Heart Attack in the Next 10 Years.”

Similarly in 2008 Michael Maslansky—whose bio is in no way entertaining—wrote a piece for the site titled “Someone Had to Ask: Who Is More Likely to Die in Office?”:

The answer appears to be that McCain’s age is going to be the bigger issue. He is already at a disadvantage as the candidate of experience in a “change” election. And he is further disadvantaged by the fact that he will have to get up on stage with a candidate young enough to be his son. Now it seems that, despite the fact that there is a reasonably long list of world leaders older than him, many Americans will see John McCain debating Obama with one foot already in the grave.

Maslansky’s piece ran in April 2008, when the Democratic nomination was not yet final. He concluded with a nod to the third candidate, then 8½ years younger than she is today:

Over at the Hillary campaign, a question of this nature should be a cause for celebration. While her various lapses in memory may have set her back politically this week, at least she can sleep well at night knowing half the country doesn’t think she’s going to be carried out of the White House in a body bag if she becomes president. Or do they? Perhaps it’s time someone should ask.

Last month someone did, and he was banished from the Puffington Host.

 

 

 

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