- Eisenhower’s Heart Attack: How Ike Beat Heart Disease and Held on to the Presidency
Few, if any, medical and political studies can match the human drama and scientific comprehensiveness of Lasby’s well-documented study. It is a history of medical advance in the treatment of heart disease, reflecting both immense progress and ultimate defeat by the nation’s number one killer. Not only does Lasby chronicle President Eisenhower’s brave struggle for survival. He traces for today’s embattled victims of heart problems, the moving transcript of the latest forms of medical discovery and treatment.
For students of the presidency, Eisenhower’s Heart Attack is a masterful account of Eisenhower’s health problems beginning when he was a cadet at West Point. Toward the end of the story, and despite a serious heart condition, his life was prolonged some eight years beyond his two-term presidency by physicians whose primary commitment was to the president and medical science. In the interval, knowledge of heart problems made giant strides. Lasby’s great triumph is to bring together the fruits of medical research and to demonstrate what they did in Eisenhower’s struggle for life and what in the end they were unable to do.
What Lasby fails to do is to link Eisenhower’s health problems in any fundamental way with the political context of presidential illness. The author comes closest to analyzing politics and presidential disability in his discussion of the cover-ups of the illness by presidential physicians and, to a certain extent, the president himself. Little or nothing is said about the political procedures of presidential disability. Two exceptions to his neglect of the political setting are, first, a brief paragraph on presidential disability and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment (citing one outdated source), and, second, quotations from Adlai Stevenson, the democratic candidate, warning the voters that a presidential vote for Eisenhower could prove to be a vote for Nixon.
To this day, we have yet to discover ways of bringing together the medical and political components of judging a president’s ability to govern. Presidential physicians, are seldom in the loop. One of them described his status as “a blue collar worker.” In a series of discussions about presidential health organized in 1996 by Arthur Link of the University of North Carolina, some physicians argued for a medical board to determine presidential disability; those close to the scene of governing, however, countered that a president’s co-workers were better able to judge his ability to govern. In fact, both physicians and bureaucrat/politicians want the last word on presidential disability. In this context, Lasby’s superb book is less a study of a president’s demonstrated capacity to govern than a textbook about the medical factors to weigh in evaluating leaders’ physical ability to govern. [End Page 355]
Nonetheless, Lasby, despite his wealth of medical findings, offers a host of behavioral requirements touching emotional and psychological factors. As the study makes clear, Eisenhower, as much as his physicians, practiced preventive medicine. The president learned to control his anger (a particularly demanding task for Eisenhower); maintain his proper weight; reduce or eliminate cigarette smoking; follow his blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels; manage anxiety, depression, and fear; and handle worry and stress. As he had learned to soldier, Eisenhower learned to recognize skipped heart beats, too rapid pulses, and the need for the occasional use of nitroglycerine. Especially in the last years of his life, he mastered the necessary skills and practiced them assiduously.
No one else has explored these medical details with the depth that Lasby has.