Ail to the chief: How to survive the presidential campaign trail

Fast food and close confines mean keeping healthy and in peak condition is next to impossible for US presidential candidates, write Steve Holland and Emily Stephenson.
Ail to the chief: How to survive the presidential campaign trail

HILLARY Clinton’s bout of pneumonia has shed light on a problem seldom seen by voters: The long days, little sleep, cross-country travel, bad food, and kissing babies add up to a recipe for illness for presidential candidates and aides.

Avoiding viruses and other ailments can be next to impossible for people who spend months in the close confines of campaign planes and buses.

Brooke Buchanan, former press secretary to 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, remembers leaving the campaign trail in Beaufort, South Carolina, to visit an emergency department. She had a respiratory ailment and two ear infections.

“You have to soldier on during certain things, but there’s a point when you become a liability,” Buchanan said. “I was back on the road the next day, full of antibiotics.”

Supporters of Clinton, who will face Republican Donald Trump in the November 8 election, were worried on Monday that the Democratic presidential nominee’s medical scare would fuel conspiracy theories about her health. But Republican and Democratic political veterans alike say illnesses are an unwelcome but standard part of life on the campaign trail.

Alice Stewart, who was a senior adviser to former presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz during the Republican primary earlier this year, remembers coughing her way through some of his news conferences while she was recording them for the campaign. She called the Cruz plane a “flying petri dish”.

“You just kind of power through it. When you’re on the road, you can’t drive home,” Stewart said.

In recent weeks, several staff at Clinton’s campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters have fallen ill and required medical treatment, a campaign aide said.

Steven Simpson, a pulmonary specialist at the University of Kansas, said candidates were particularly vulnerable to illness. “The average patient, if you have the luxury of it, takes the week off before you go back to your full duties,” Simpson said. “But how do you say that to a presidential candidate?”

US President Barack Obama caught a cold in August 2008, shortly before the Democratic Party’s convention. A video posted on YouTube shows him sneezing at a rally. “That’s why I’ve got my handkerchief,” he said.

“Every candidate and campaign aide gets sick, but they just never get to take days off,” said former Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer. “You take vitamin C and try to get sleep, but it’s a losing battle.”

Obama’s 2008 opponent, John McCain, travelled at times with a friend who was a doctor, said Steve Schmidt, the Republican candidate’s campaign manager.

“I think one of the secrets of working in a White House or on a presidential campaign is it’s the closest you can ever get to travelling with Elvis [Presley] when it comes to the number of pills that are floating around,” Schmidt said.

“There was always a big bag of every conceivable type of antibiotic and cold medicine, and you name it — we had it.”

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney developed a respiratory illness days before delivering his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012.

“I was scared to death that he wouldn’t really be able to speak,” said Stuart Stevens, who was Romney’s senior adviser. “Doctors tell you to rest. But there’s no time for that.”

The grueling schedule led Stevens himself to develop pneumonia right after the 2012 campaign ended.

Unhealthy food is another hazard of the campaign trail. Junk food is ubiquitous on campaign planes, and candidates flock to gatherings such as the Iowa State Fair that serve up fried candy bars, sausages and other high-calorie fare.

Romney, who also ran for US president in 2008, would sometimes pick the cheese off his pizza and the skin off fried chicken to limit the fat content, said former spokesman Ryan Williams.

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney

“It’s not healthy food, it’s campaign food,” said Williams. “And most operatives see themselves put on 10 or 20 pounds by the end of the campaign.”

Trump is a noted germophobe, and there has been little evidence of him having gotten ill. He is a proud consumer of fast food, once tweeting a photo of himself on his plane with a bucket of KFC nearby.

That was also the chicken of choice for 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole, who managed to avoid getting sick throughout his campaign, said his then-traveling press secretary, Nelson Warfield.

“Much of the campaign staff that was half his age were hobbled at some point or another during the campaign, but Dole was resilient,” he said.

Still, Dole had one nasty stumble. He fell off a stage in Chico, California, at campaign rally on October 18, 1996. He got up smiling and soldiered on.

Meanwhile, a new poll showed less than half of American voters believe Clinton is suffering pneumonia.

Commissioned by the Times in London, The YouGov poll said 46% of voters did not accept that Clinton was only suffering a mild form of pneumonia.

Clinton sought to limit questions over her health by saying of a pneumonia diagnosis late last week: “I just didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal”.

Ms Clinton said she informed a handful of her closest advisers, but pressed on with a busy campaign schedule and did not inform the public that she was sick.

The incident reinforced Ms Clinton’s reputation as a public figure with a predisposition for privacy.

In a move aimed at quieting questions about transparency, Ms Clinton said she would be releasing more medical information this week.

Her campaign has sought to turn the matter around on Republican opponent Donald Trump, who has released only a glowing letter from his doctor, though the billionaire real estate mogul says that he, too, plans to make public additional information in the coming days.

While Democrats said the matter is unlikely to fundamentally alter the presidential race, Democrats worry the race with Mr Trump is too close for comfort.

“If you look at the way the last couple months have gone, it feels like the race should be further apart,” said Greg Haas, an Ohio-based Democratic strategist and former county party chairman.

Aaron Regunberg, a Democratic state representative from Rhode Island, said he was “surprised and concerned” that the race is so tight.

“I still think that we are likely to win, but I think anyone who’s not concerned about a bigoted, KKK-endorsed sociopath being this close right now in the polls is not living in reality,” Mr Regunberg said of Mr Trump.

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