U.S. Presidential Disabilities and How Society and the Media Reacts Thesis

Pages: 20 (5791 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 20  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Government

Perceptions of Presidents With Disabilities

Bibliographical Essay

The perception of American presidents as healthy and able-bodied men has always been one that served to convey confidence and support of them by voters during their campaign bids for the office. For voters, this highest office of authority and operations has required a man who is on top of his game, physically and mentally fit, in order to bear the heavy burdens of the office and weighty-decisions that he must make on behalf of the American people. To this end, there exists an industry, an army, of image makers, men and women trained in the skillful art of public image making, and who work hard to ensure that the image in the public mind and eye of presidential candidates and presidents is one that is akin to the social norms, values, and morals of the American people. They ensure that the American people are able to in some way, preferably many ways, relate to the candidate or president on a personal level as a guarantee of the peoples' support, and continued support after election for the policies and goals of the president.

The question this study will attempt to answer is: If the American knew about the disabilities of past presidential candidates, would those disabilities have impacted the thinking and choice of the American voters in ways that would have changed the outcome of past presidential elections?Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Thesis on U.S. Presidential Disabilities and How Society and the Media Reacts Assignment

This study relies upon the existing body of research and scholarship in the areas of psychology, mass media, public relations, and history. For purposes of this study, and given the current social environment where infidelity is being treated as sexual addiction and perceived as a disability, this study will include the cases of former President Bill Clinton, and former presidential candidate John Edwards. In the more traditional sense of the term "disability," the study will include an examination of President John F. Kennedy, who suffered a severe back injury, and throughout the course of his presidency wore a back brace, took powerful pain medications, and was, unbeknownst to the public, sometimes incapacitated by his injury.

The Case of John Edwards

Barbara A. Bades, Mark C. Shelley and Steffen Schmidt (2008) say that the role of the professional political consultant is to build the candidate's image, and this is the most crucial element in their work (333). They say that scholars have invested much time and effort in understanding the nature of the American voter, and that understanding has translated itself into how the image of the political candidate is crafted (201). We can see that in this regard political image builders have been successful with more recent candidates like recent presidential hopeful John Edwards, of North Carolina. In the end, however, even the most talented and skillful public image consultant cannot save a public figure from his or her self, especially when that public figure conducts his self or herself in a manner that is contrary to the image being created of them.

In the case of John Edwards, a skillfully crafted public image unraveled when the presidential hopeful was unable to resist his physical urges and took a mistress. Edwards, for purposes of this study, must be considered to have suffered from a psychological disorder, because whether or not that disorder should be classified as megalomania, sexual addiction, or some other psychological disorder, he was psychologically impaired believing that he could be in the spotlight as a presidential contender who had been "packaged" to represent moral majority values and traditions, and yet carry on an extramarital affair. As news of the affair began filtering into the news media, Edwards admitted to the affair, and that he had lied "as presidential candidate (ABC News 2008, online)." Attempting to remain within the framework of the image that had been built around him, Edwards said:

"Two years ago I made a very serious mistake, a mistake that I am responsible for and no one else. In 2006, I told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness, asked God for his forgiveness. And we have kept this within our family since that time (ABC News, online."

Then, in a bizarre set of twists and turns, it was later revealed that the affair had produced a child, which Edwards initially denied fathering, stating instead that the child produced by his mistress was not his, but was actually fathered by his campaign aide, Andrew Young (AARP Bulletin Today, 2010, online). It was two years before Edwards finally admitted that he not only had an affair, but that he was also the father of the child. He had convinced his former aide, Young, to accept responsibility for the child in an effort to save his political career -- which now is perhaps unredeemable as a result of not just Edwards' affair, but because of the pattern of pathological lying that has destroyed his credibility as a public figure. Edwards is also being investigated for campaign finance abuses since it has been alleged that he used campaign donations in an effort to cover the affair (AARP Bulletin Today).

So, we can see that Bade's, Shelley's, and Schmidt's position that image making is the most crucial aspect of the public consultant's work might be accurate, but that no amount of effort in that regard can sustain a political figure or public figure who has perhaps become so large and powerful in his or her own mind as to behave, or to conduct his or her self in a manner inconsistent with who they really are as a person. Fortunately, in the case of John Edwards, he did not win his party's nomination for the presidency. We can see, too, that the outcome of Edwards' story is that had the public been aware of Edwards' problems, his inability to live to up to the image that had been created around him because of his inability to resist his own physical desires, perhaps a sexual addiction; that he would not have gained the support or received the political contributions made to him by public supporters who believed he represented their traditions and values. If Edwards had early on in his bid for the presidency proclaimed himself to be seriously unhappy in his marriage, interested in a relationship, instead, with a campaign worker, and that he was a man willing to misdirect campaign donations made to him in order to hide his infidelities, then he would no doubt not have been taken very seriously and his political ambitions would have come to a conclusion much sooner than they did.

Today's intense media, the role of political candidates as celebrities, and technology that exists in every hand-held cell phone, camera, camcorder or other device to record and instantaneously send images and information makes it virtually impossible today for political figures, especially presidents, to hide their physical or mental impairments or disabilities from the public view. This has not always been the case, however, and as we go back in time, before the sensationalism of today's media journalists, and before the technology, we find that not only were journalists more forgiving of physical impairments suffered by former presidents, but that they actually worked with those presidents to lessen the harm that capturing such images might cause the president.

The Case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Robert E. Gilbert (1998) writes:

"Historians and political scientists often describe the office of the presidency of the United States as a stressful, burdensome, debilitating position. Dorothy James refers to the office as 'literally a killing job whose pressures continue to mount.' Milton Plesur argues that 'no responsible union would ever the President's hours for a 'hard hat.' Richard Pious points out that 'always there is the burden of office which takes its toll on the health and well-being of the incumbent.' And Thomas Cronin begins and ends his 1980 volume on the presidency by quoting John Steinbeck: 'We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man can take, more pressure than a man can bear (1).'"

Gilbert is saying that the office of the president is one that is in and of itself debilitating. That a man who enters the office fit and physically able, could, as a result of that office, the pressures brought to bear by the responsibilities of the office, might ostensibly leave that office physically and, or, mentally impaired. Gilbert is suggesting that the office requires the candidate to be in the most physical and mentally fit condition possible in order to bear the pressure and rigors of the office.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered office in 1932, he had still not fully recovered from having contracted polio in 1921(Gilbert, 43). That Roosevelt suffered from polio at all was "a fact concealed from the public for many years lest it might be detrimental to his political career (43)." Yet Roosevelt served in office longer than any president before, or after him, and the public never lost confidence in him.


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