As the news of President Donald Trump’s bout with COVID-19 made it in and out of the news cycle in the past few weeks, questions have arisen as to whether or not this will have larger ramifications down the road. As a historian, whenever I ask myself a question about the future, I always end up looking to the past for the answer, and there are actually many instances where presidential illnesses have had a great effect on the times — the three most glaring being the ones that claimed the lives of Harrison, Harding and Roosevelt. While I could make all of these the topic of this article, it’s important to also look at instances where the president survived, so I’ll stick to talking about Warren Harding, who died tragically in office while attempting a grandiose campaign to travel around the country, as well as his predecessor Woodrow Wilson, who survived his time in office, even though the effects of his illness may have had more of an impact than Harding’s.
Woodrow Wilson was president for all of World War I, and his second term took him two years past the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the conflict. This treaty was one of the most important documents of the century as it established the predecessor of the United Nations and handed down harsh punishments for the defeated Central Powers, primarily Germany. For the next decade, as the rest of the world lived in the luxury of the roaring twenties, Germany was in shambles, and the Great Depression only made this worse. This of course put Germany in a perfect position for a charismatic populist to take the helm and take over with a promise of restoring the country’s glory, and Adolf Hitler’s reign and its effects are a horrific stain on the 20th century world. The issue is that Wilson saw this ripple effect coming, and had been fighting the U.K. and France to keep them from completely gutting the defeated. What turned the tide of this dispute in favor of the Europeans was when Wilson came down with a nasty case of the Spanish Influenza, a global pandemic he had been horrifyingly slow to combat.
Warren Harding was a relatively popular president two years into his term, when he decided to go on a trip around the country he dubbed the “Voyage of Understanding.” This was unprecedented for the time, so the idea of the Commander-in-Chief visiting many different states was exciting. Unfortunately, Harding was a little too ambitious. He died in the middle of the trip in San Francisco from what was most likely a heart attack brought on by overworking despite mentioning he was tired and fatigued many times.
The key similarity here is disregard for health: one for his own and the other for the health others, and an ensuing catastrophe because of it. While one can quickly point out that the remainder of the decade these two set up was good for this country and most of the world, the effects that hit us for the 15 years after that were not worth it. Obviously there were many other factors that brought about the Great Depression and World War II, but the harsh Treaty of Versailles and the death of a president could have been avoided.
“The key similarity here is disregard for health: one for his own and the other for the health others, and an ensuing catastrophe because of it.”
Circling back to the present day, Trump has declared victory in his battle with the novel coronavirus, but as Wilson and Harding’s stories tell us, we may not get to see the full impact of this for years. Whether it comes down to the fact that our president wasn’t in a capacity to lead for more than a week, or that he may have infected thousands at his rallies, White House meetings, debates and otherwise, we have no way of telling what the ramifications of Trump’s COVID-19 bout will be. Sure, it could be nothing, but it could also be something no one could have predicted, and that’s the scariest part.