Michele Bachmann reportedly suffers from “frequent” migraine headaches. She takes lots of pills to lessen the pain and prevent their recurrence. Given the stresses of the presidency, should her chronic condition be a cause for serious concern?The story broke the other night on the conservative Daily Caller website – which is fortunate, because if a mainstream outlet had done so, Bachmann devotees would be railing about a “liberal media” conspiracy – and it has sparked much discussion about the relevancy of this particular health issue. The story’s author contends via Twitter that Bachmann’s migraines are “potentially disqualifying” because of their apparent severity.Ex-Bachmann aides, who have been dishing dirt on her for awhile now (telling reporters that she has no business running for president in the first place, that her House office is chaotic, that she’s the boss from hell), are responsible for the migraine story. One former adviser told the Daily Caller that the headaches “put her out of commission for a day or more at a time. They come out of nowhere, and they’re unpredictable. They level her. They put her down.” The sources said that despite a preventive pill regimen, she suffers a migraine roughly once a week; on a few occasions, she has been hospitalized.Bachmann has never volunteered this health information – her swift ascent in the Republican polls has far outpaced her obligation as a candidate to be transparent – but yesterday she felt compelled to confirm it. In a statement on the stump, she said:”Like nearly 30 million other Americans, I experience migraines that are easily controlled with medication….Since entering the campaign, I have maintained a full schedule between my duties as a congresswoman and as a presidential candidate traveling across the nation to meet with voters in the key, early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. I have prescribed medication that I take whenever symptoms arise and they keep the migraines under control. Let me be abundantly clear – my ability to function effectively has never been impeded by migraines and will not affect my ability to serve as Commander in Chief.”Meanwhile, her spokeswoman refused to talk about any hospitalizations, and insisted that the migraines have not been debilitating.I have friends who suffer from migraines, and they describe the pain as debilitating. (ABC News today has its own story, citing a Bachmann insider who says that on frequent occasions the congresswoman has been “unable to function.” So does Politico, which reports that Bachmann missed eight House votes while hospitalized for migraines last summer.) Perhaps such a chronic sufferer should not be entrusted with the nuclear football.
On the other hand, many high-functioning presidents have been plagued with serious health conditions, in eras when treatment was far less sophisticated than today. FDR ran World War II from a wheelchair, while plagued with hypertension and hardening of the arteries. Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge suffered from what today would be diagnosed as clinical depression. Dwight Eisenhower had chronic heart disease. Grover Cleveland had mouth cancer, and the operation to remove part of his jaw and palate was performed in secret on a boat.Perhaps most famously, John F. Kennedy had Addison’s Disease (a total failure of the adrenal glands), and he sustained his much-hyped “vigor” with the help of a new miracle drug, cortisone. He also took a slew of pills for other chronic maladies, sometimes every hour. Historian Richard Reeves has written: “As candidate and president, Kennedy concealed his low energy level, radiating health and good humor, though he usually spent more than half of most days in bed. He retired early most nights, read in bed until 9 a.m. or so each morning, and napped an hour each afternoon.” Another historian, Robert Dallek, has described Kennedy as “a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain and distress.” Yet Kennedy also managed to stare down the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis.So with a bit of historical perspective, Bachmann’s migraines don’t seem so serious – and certainly not as dire as the conservative website’s shrill headline seemed to imply (“Stress-related condition ‘incapacitates’ Bachmann; heavy pill use alleged,” which made her sound like Marilyn Monroe on the eve of her ’62 OD.) Meanwhile, Bachmann’s son, a medical doctor, spun for his mom yesterday, telling reporters: “She would not in any respect meet the definition for not having capacity in one of these episodes. She is probably not going to run a mile, but in terms of being able to engage, she can comprehend and assess information – without a doubt.” All told, health concerns are always worth debating, but there’s a much bigger issue with Bachmann.Declaring that gays are “part of Satan,” predicting that the world is going to end (in an ’06 prayer she said: “We are in the last days”), calling for the abolition of the minimum wage, likening Iraq to the Mall of America (2007: “there’s a commonality with the Mall of America, in that it’s on that proportion. There’s marble everywhere”), denying that humans have a role in global warming, denying that a U.S. credit default could trigger economic catastrophe (she dismisses such warnings as “scare tactics”)…here’s the bottom line:What’s “potentially disqualifying” is not the migraine headaches. It’s the stuff she says and espouses in between headaches.