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Should we monitor the mental health and cognition of presidents and candidates?

Woodrow Wilson.jpg
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library
President Woodrow Wilson had a devastating stroke while in office and suffered from a deep depression.

Michael Dickens is a medical doctor and former board chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton. He knows that the nation’s 28th president was not well.

“He had three strokes before he assumed office as president, and then he had a major stroke in 1919," he explains. "Wilson was paralyzed on one side of his body and at some point, he was actually depressed to the point that he thought about committing suicide.”

Richard Nixon abused alcohol toward the end of his second term. John F. Kennedy took steroids and painkillers for a bad back, and Ronald Reagan was likely in the early stages of dementia during his second term in office.

“Leslie Stahl, who was I think actually interviewed him privately halfway through his second term and made a note to herself that “this guy is gonzo!” Dickens says.

The public didn’t know, and back then it wasn’t possible to predict diseases of the brain, but today Dickens thinks there should be more transparency around the commander-in-chief’s mental health, and we should use technology to monitor the president.

“Our track record with presidential disability has been pretty alarming over the years – not just the eight presidents who have died in office or the seven vice presidents who’ve died, but the number of presidents who have struggled through their presidency suffering from some form of mental or emotional problem, and we’ve dodged a few bullets over the years, but now we have the ability to look at someone say in their 50’s or 60’s and pick up clues that maybe this person is already going down the road toward developing dementia, and maybe we should look at screening people who want to be president for that or at least testing them on a regular basis.”

If the vice president and senior cabinet think the president is unfit to serve, they can notify Congress and the vice president can takeover. This, of course, raises questions about privacy, but Dickens dismisses that concern.

“Presidents and vice presidents sort of give up their right to medical privacy when they stand for election to those offices, because the Constitution gives the president total control over the U.S. military, including nuclear weapons, and to leave that discretion in the hands of a president who is becoming impaired with mental or emotional problems is quite alarming, but there are any number of screening tests that are now available that are not routinely applied to most people – neuro-imaging tests, genetic profile tests, that tell you whether a person is either in the very early stages of developing Alzheimer’s or is at genetic risk for it.”

Dickens will speak on that subject March 20th in person and on Zoom. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is at 235 E. Beverly St. in Staunton. To participate via Zoom, register at the library’s website --- www.woodrowwilson.org.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief