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When the Patient Is Your Commander in Chief, the Answer Is Usually ‘Yes, Sir’

Abraham Lincoln was incubating smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address, which his aides later played down. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke that was covered up for four months and greatly incapacitated him at the end of his second term. Grover Cleveland’s cancer surgery was hidden for nearly a quarter of a century. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his aides disguised his inability to walk unaided, the result of paralytic disease, as well as a host of serious ailments at the end of his life. Warren G. Harding had an undisclosed heart issue.

“My impression is that F.D.R. was probably in denial about how dire his condition was,” said Susan Dunn, a professor of humanities at ­Williams College and author of a book on the former president. “It was an election season for F.D.R., too, when his health worsened so dramatically. Perhaps Trump, like F.D.R., is also in denial about the seriousness of his illness.”

She said that Mr. Trump had “behaved irresponsibly and with willful ignorance about the gravity of the pandemic, a true public health crisis, and his insistence on leaving the hospital today only underscores his juvenile, self-interested behavior.”

Forms of modern media, in particular social media, make hiding any illness or deterioration much more difficult than in previous generations. So Mr. Trump’s doctor appears to have chosen another route, obfuscating details with vague timelines and imprecise language.

Mr. Algeo said, for instance, that brushing off Mr. Trump’s use of oxygen “reminds me of the Monty Python skit in which one of the knights who has one of his legs cut off and the other leg and then an arm says, ‘It’s only a scratch.’” (“’Tis but a scratch,” Python buffs will note.)

The net result of Mr. Trump’s hospitalization has been widespread confusion among those who may have been exposed by the president and others around him who have tested positive for the virus, and a general sense that his care is being coordinated less by medical professionals than the West Wing.

More unusual is Mr. Trump’s insistence on trying to resume normal activities when he has a highly contagious and notably volatile illness, one that is particularly dangerous to men his age and weight.

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