Running With Walking Pneumonia: A Teachable Moment

09/13/2016 01:09 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2016
The Washington Post via Getty Images

An awful lot has been written about walking pneumonia, and the entire nation is having a teach-in about the condition. But it's actually an opportunity to have a teachable moment about a much larger condition -- the fact that our culture incentivizes our politicians to go around like walking zombies.

This has been an insane political season, and this is yet another example. Specifically, how insane is the culture we're living in that a) the Democratic nominee and her campaign decided it was a good idea to keep a full schedule even after the diagnosis of walking pneumonia, and b) that there is so much posturing about toughness that it's seen as a weakness for a candidate to actually acknowledge that she's human and needs to recharge -- preferably before getting walking pneumonia?

It's not an accident that Hillary Clinton's most damaging comment in this entire campaign about "half of Trump's supporters" being "a basket of deplorables" was made on the night that she'd been diagnosed with walking pneumonia, when clearly her judgment and decision-making were degraded by her condition. Nevermind her opponent, who has already proven himself unfit in every way, including, but not limited to, bragging about only sleeping four hours per night and showing all the symptoms that go along with that: inability to process even basic information, mood swings, anger outbursts, false memories, paranoid tendency to spout conspiracy theories, and regurgitation of incomprehensible nonsense.

Modern science unambiguously tells us that it's not just our health that deteriorates when we're run down, but our judgment as well. But too many people -- including much of the electorate, many in the media, and, apparently, our two nominees -- still seem to regard the idea of taking care of oneself, taking the time to recharge and get enough sleep, as a sign of weakness.

As Dr. Ali Rezai, the director of the Neurological Institute from the Ohio State University told me, illnesses like walking pneumonia don't just come out of the blue. "Viruses and bacteria are around us all the time, but whether they turn into diseases is about how strong our immune system is and how worn down we are. And there are always symptoms before something like walking pneumonia is diagnosed. And if we don't ignore them, we can successfully intervene -- by getting more sleep and slowing down our schedule."

Perhaps this is a perfect opportunity to redefine our misguided and outdated notions of what it means to be "fit" for office. If you want to have the clarity and steadiness to deal with that "3:00 a.m. phone call," you should better have made sure that you're not running on empty when that phone rings.

The science on this is beyond clear, and it's beyond time we woke up to it. To cite just one example, a recent scientific study showed that exhaustion and sleep deprivation can leave you with levels of cognitive impairment roughly equivalent to being legally drunk. And yet we're still seeing politicians lead campaigns in which they try to signal their strength and discipline by bragging about how they work all the time. In essence, what science tells us they're communicating is: "Vote for me, because I structure my life so that I make all my decisions while effectively drunk." That's not something to brag about, as her husband did when he told Charlie Rose on Monday that he'll "be lucky to hold her back another day" and that, even though she's exhausted, she's working "like a demon." That's not strong leadership and it's not even, as we've seen this week, good campaign politics. Even worse, the campaign's responses during her recovery are continuing to validate the misguided beliefs about health and performance that likely led to the problem in the first place.

Working until your body refuses to carry you any longer (as happened to Clinton on the way to her car after leaving the 9/11 memorial service early) is not strength and discipline. Candidates brag about how data-driven their campaigns are, but they ignore the scientific data that makes it clear that the highest functioning candidate is the one who has the confidence and the discipline to take the time to recharge.

And this isn't a new issue for Clinton. In January she told Jimmy Fallon that during her time as Secretary of State she'd sometimes be so exhausted while meeting with world leaders that she'd be, as she put it, "standing there and digging my fingernails into my palm to keep myself awake" so she could "answer questions on behalf of our country." And after she stepped down as Secretary of State in 2012 -- having traveled nearly 1 million miles flying to 112 different countries -- she told The New York Times that her most immediate goal was to see whether she could get "untired."

Enough! It's time for the woman who has already broken a big glass ceiling and opened so many doors for women around the world to also shatter our collective delusion that women have to out-burnout the men in order to prove that they're fit for the highest office -- or the c-suite for that matter.

The absurd theories about Hillary Clinton's health that have been percolating among the same fringe groups that have been accusing the Clintons of murder for decades have now been given more fuel by Sunday's incident. By hewing to the misguided notion that what's best for the campaign is a candidate who's always on and never stops, Hillary Clinton and her advisors have actually hurt her campaign, at least for the latest news cycle. She may have lost this battle, but if she and her campaign -- and the rest of us -- learn from this, I promise she's much more likely to win the war.

Clinton's physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack, said that Clinton was "advised to rest and modify her schedule." But it shouldn't take walking pneumonia for that to be acceptable protocol for a presidential candidate -- that's good advice for every political leader at every level and at all times.

A lot of effort and money are -- rightly -- expended keeping the president physically safe. But it's up to the president to maintain a schedule that allows for refueling, so as to be physically and cognitively at his or her best at all times. That's what it means to be strong, tough, and truly fit for the highest office.

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