October 2, 2020

This is a special edition of Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The nation and indeed, the world got a reminder Friday of why it is critical that people are able to trust what government leaders say in times of uncertainty. The White House says the president of the United States is experiencing “mild” COVID-19 symptoms and that he will continue to do the routine work of the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence said he has tested negative for the virus.

The Joe Biden campaign issued a statement that the former vice president and his wife had tested negative for the virus.

Just before noon Eastern Friday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced that he tested positive for the coronavirus. That announcement is important because Sen. Lee was at the White House Saturday when President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee. The Rose Garden announcement included few masks and no social distancing.

Judge Barrett has since tested negative for the virus.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was in the unenviable position of testifying before a House hearing Friday and trying to defend the president’s unwillingness to consistently wear a mask during the pandemic, even as his top health advisers tell us all to wear masks in public.

Azar told the special House committee overseeing the administration’s COVID-19 response that the president “is in a different situation than the rest of us” in that he lives in a sort of protective bubble where people are constantly being tested. But even under those circumstances, he became infected, which may be a wake-up call for some that the coronavirus is relentless.

Key questions that journalists will explore all weekend

Hope Hicks walks from Marine One to accompany President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One as he departs Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Hope, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump have all tested positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • When did it become clear that Trump adviser Hope Hicks had tested positive for COVID-19?
  • What was the immediate response to that test result and did the White House knowingly expose others by continuing campaign travel?
  • What are the protocols that will be used to determine when or if the 25th Amendment would kick in to temporarily transfer presidential powers to the vice president?
  • How will a minimum two-week quarantine after the end of symptoms affect campaign plans?
  • How will future Trump election efforts be different from past events that were freewheeling, crowded and mask-free?
  • Will President Trump begin appearing wearing a mask as Biden and Pence often do already? Two days before he tested positive, the president stood on a debate stage and mocked Biden for frequently wearing a mask.
  • How does the president’s illness affect his supporters who often shun masks and claim the virus’ threat is exaggerated or was even invented as a Democratic campaign stunt?
  • How will the tone of campaign advertising change when the president and first lady are ill? Trump opponents will have to be careful to both show concern for the health of the president and still talk about how the GOP nominee has handled the pandemic, which is undoubtedly a key campaign issue. Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, who was present at the Tuesday debate in Cleveland, said he was angry that the president did not wear a mask at that event.

The 25th Amendment and how past presidents have handled health concerns

Governor Woodrow Wilson campaigning by train for president in Bradford, Ohio, 1912. (Everett Collection)

This is the time for the government to be as open and transparent as possible, maybe more open than you might even think is reasonable.

There are many examples of how the presidents of the past have handled health concerns. For the most part, the health of the president was not widely disclosed in any great detail until the mid-1900s. In some cases, the country was run by presidents who were barely functional because of illness or injury.

Woodrow Wilson suffered a series of strokes that left him unable to write for nearly a year. When Wilson took office, one military physician said his health was so bad he likely would not complete his term. Wilson will likely be mentioned a lot in the days to come because he, like President Trump, was infected by a virus that swept the world — Wilson became ill with the Spanish flu in April 1919.

The severity of Wilson’s health issues was behind the passage of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which set up a line of orderly succession in the event that a president becomes unable to fulfill the duties of the office.  The 25th Amendment has not been in place that long. Ratified in 1967, it clarified what happens if Article 2 of the Constitution didn’t apply. Article 2 describes what happens if a president dies or willingly hands over power because of an inability to do the job.

But Wilson was not dead and was not willing to hand over power. Article 3 of the 25th Amendment became the new protocol.

PBS recollects:

Protective of both her husband’s reputation and power, First Lady Edith Bolling Galt shielded Woodrow from interlopers and embarked on a bedside government that essentially excluded Wilson’s staff, the Cabinet and the Congress. During a perfunctory meeting the president held with Sen. Gilbert Hitchcock (D-Neb.) and Albert Fall (R-N.M.) on Dec. 5, he and Edith even tried to hide the extent of his paralysis by keeping his left side covered with a blanket.

Franklin Roosevelt, of course, suffered from polio, diagnosed when he was 39 years old. While it was no secret that he had the condition and that he struggled to walk, journalists didn’t focus on it. History.com recalls:

As he’d been rendered a paraplegic, he used a specially designed wheelchair to get around most of the time. While President he wanted to project strength and virility, and so devised a way to “walk” during public appearances. It involved wearing leg braces, using a cane, and utilizing the arm of his son or a trusted advisor. Additionally, he asked the press to refrain from photographing him walking, or being transferred from his car, and the Secret Service was charged with interfering with those who attempted to capture images that might portray the President as “weak.”

President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack while in Colorado on what was to have been a combination work and play trip. The White House rushed top heart experts to Colorado. The National Archives has images of how the hospital set up space for journalists to work.

Photographers camped outside the hospital trying to capture any image of the president.

At one point, after journalists reported that Eisenhower would be charged $51.75 for his meals while at the hospital, offers to pay the tab flooded the hospital.

Imaging is always important to the presidency and Ike allowed the public to see him in a wheelchair when he was released from the hospital.

John F. Kennedy knew in 1947 that he had Addison’s disease — an incurable disorder of the adrenal glands. It was kept quiet. Kennedy suffered chronic back pain and anxiety.

Ronald Reagan sent a sigh of relief to the nation when he appeared at a hospital window and waived to the crowds below after he was shot by an attempted assassin. You can read The New York Times report from the day after he was shot, which describes how the president signed a document from his hospital bed and met with advisers.

Reagan also publicly battled other health problems, including urinary tract infections, and underwent removal of prostate stones. He also developed temporomandibular joint disease and arthritis.

Reagan allowed himself to be photographed meeting with top advisers while he was lying in a hospital bed. First Lady Nancy Reagan also appeared at a hospital window and waived after she underwent breast cancer surgery.

Journalists said that during his second term, Reagan began leaning more heavily on advisers, and some journalists recollected that he appeared to be showing signs of what eventually was confirmed to be Alzheimer’s disease.

President Trump has been cagey about reporting details of his health. Four years ago, he released a health report that contained details of dubious veracity.  Even while he has been president, journalists have had lots of questions about the accuracy of his health reports.

President Trump’s views on face masks

President Donald Trump holds out his face mask during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio, Sept. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The New York Times keeps a running list of Trump quotes about masks that include:

April 3, at the White House: “The C.D.C. is advising the use of nonmedical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure. So, it’s voluntary. You don’t have to do it. They suggested for a period of time, but this is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

“I just don’t want to be doing — I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful resolute desk, the great resolute desk. I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just, I just don’t.”

May 21, touring a Ford plant: “I wore one” — a mask — “in the back area. I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”

July 19, to the Fox News host Chris Wallace: “I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody wears a mask, everything disappears.”

Aug. 13, at the White House: “My administration has a different approach: We have urged Americans to wear masks, and I emphasized this is a patriotic thing to do. Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good.”

Sept. 29 at a presidential debate: “I think masks are OK. You have to understand, if you look — I mean, I have a mask right here. I put a mask on when I think I need it. Tonight, as an example, everybody’s had a test, and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to.”

He continued: “When needed, I wear masks. I don’t wear masks like him,” he said of Mr. Biden. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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