The Mortal Presidency

Add to History Board Share Print
Runtime: 4:47

He is head of state, Commander-in-chief, and the country’s top legislator. The President of the United States has arguably the toughest job in America, and it turns out, the most deadly.

When you think about the most dangerous jobs, the US Presidency probably doesn’t come to mind. Statistical analysis has shown that American presidency is one of the most deadly jobs in the United States. Called “a killer,” the job has caused the deaths of 20% of presidents, both directly and indirectly. Even the residence itself was a contributing factor in disease and deaths of those who lived there.

Accounts written by presidential doctors, assassins, and even the presidents themselves are featured and can be viewed in-depth through the links below.

Transcript

He is Head of State, Commander in Chief, and the country’s top legislator. The President of the United States has arguably the toughest job in America, and it turns out the most deadly. Statistically, the US presidency is more dangerous than law enforcement, construction, space exploration, and mining. 20% of presidents have died in office, 20% were targets of assassination attempts, and 10% were assassinated.

Two thirds of us presidents have died before reaching their life expectancies. The job has been described as a killer. The question is, what makes the U S presidency so dangerous and so deadly? Perhaps it is best to start with the job’s home base, the White House. Considered one of the most elegant homes in the world today, in the early 19th century, the White House was one of the unhealthiest places in America.

Built on muggy marshland, the house was damned and vermin infested. Raw sewage flowed freely in nearby streams, turning the South lawn into an open sewer. Many presidents and their families suffered with gastrointestinal disease. Two of Abraham Lincoln’s sons caught typhoid fever there. 11-year-old Willy would die from it. Not until the introduction of modern sanitation and other improvements did presidents and their families live comfortably in the presidential residence.

And then there is the job itself. Most of us can appreciate how difficult the job of president must be, but only those who occupy the office understand the toll exacted by its burdens. Consider this. For most of the 19th century, appointment to any federal job, even running the corner post office, was at the discretion of the White House. The result? Presidents were besieged by job seekers.

William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, complained of being harassed by the multitude. James Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled and mentally disturbed job seeker. Add to this the inherently disputatious nature of the democratic process. Sectional struggles over slavery and civil rights split the country and weighed heavily on presidents for two centuries. Today, increasingly complex domestic and global politics, an unwieldy bureaucracy, and around the clock media scrutiny add to the strain of presidential responsibilities.

At least 7 presidents struggled with serious medical conditions while in office. Amazingly, they were able to cover them up. No one knew Grover Cleveland had two secret cancer surgeries. Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed and couldn’t walk, and Woodrow Wilson didn’t get out of bed for seven months following a devastating stroke. Presidents promoted images of strength and vitality, even as they suffered with illness and incapacity. New details of presidential illness and denial are being discovered to this day.

Adding to the mortality mystique of the presidency is the zero factor. Legend has it that William Henry Harrison brought a curse down upon the presidency when he killed the great Indian leader Tecumseh during the war of 1812. Beginning in 1840, when Harrison died just 40 days after his inauguration, every president who was elected in a year ending in zero died in office until Ronald Reagan. Reagan narrowly survived an assassination attempt just 69 days into his first term. George W. Bush was spared when a grenade thrown towards him failed to detonate. The curse, it appears, is broken.

Take an extraordinary journey into the mortal presidency. Read original letters from presidents, their doctors, and presidential assassins, as they provide an intimate look inside the most deadly job in America, the presidents of the United States.