Hillary, Secrecy & Pneumonia

While attending a 9/11 event, Hillary Clinton seemed to succumb to the heat. It was later revealed that she had been suffering from pneumonia, something her campaign had failed to disclose. As would be expected, her critics rushed to claim that this is yet another example of her problematic obsession with secrecy. As should also be expected, those who have long been advancing the narrative of her ill health were given a fresh magazine of ammunition. Her supporters mostly responded by downplaying the incident.

Assuming she really does have pneumonia, her illness is not really a big deal. After all, if getting sick disqualified a person from being president, then there would be no one to fill the office. The real concern was, of course, about the failure to announce in a timely manner that she was sick. This ties into the damaging narrative that Hillary is needlessly and problematically secretive.

It could be countered that the decision was not based in this desire for secrecy but was a calculated move in response to Trump’s strategy of claiming Hillary is unwell. While everyone gets sick at some point, there was no doubt concern that Trump would exploit such an announcement and ratchet up his attacks. Hillary and her handlers probably thought they could bluff their way through the illness; something that might have worked.

While that approach has some appeal, there is the very reasonable concern that the failure to disclose this illness was, as noted above, just another example of Hillary’s problematic obsession with secrecy. Hillary also recently faced the backlash from Bill’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch. This was rightly presented as an example of an approach so often taken by the Clintons. After all, while any sensible person would expect that Bill would use his influence to help Hillary, doing this in such a blatant and clumsy manner did considerable damage. Given that Hillary is supposed to be such a savvy politician, it is interesting to consider why she engages in what seem to be so many self-damaging actions. While the discussion focuses on Hillary, it also applies to people in general. Poor decision making is a common affliction.

One possibility is that such behavior is in her nature—she is what she is, so she does what she does even when it harms her efforts to fulfill her ambition to be president. This is illustrated by the classic story of the fox (or frog) and the scorpion.

A fox was about to start his swim across a river when a scorpion called out to him, asking for a ride across. The fox, being good natured, wanted to help. But, he was worried that the scorpion would sting him. The scorpion assured him that he would be in no danger. After all, if he stung the fox, they would both drown and he certainly would not do something so foolish.

The fox agreed and the scorpion climbed up on his back. When the pair was half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. When the fox asked the scorpion why, he replied “it’s my nature” and they both died. Each thing is what it is and does what it does because of what it is. So, perhaps it is simply Hillary’s nature to engage in such behavior—she simply cannot do otherwise. This does raise many interesting questions about whether people have a nature or not and it certainly ties into the endless philosophical battle over free choice.

An alternative that avoids metaphysics is to take the view that Hillary is habituated into doing as she does. While habits can be very powerful, they are obviously weaker than having a nature. This is because, as Aristotle discussed at length, habits can be made and broken. But, habits can be rather hard to break, especially bad ones and it is quite obvious that people will stick with detrimental habits even in the face of continuous negative results. For example, most people have the habits of eating poorly and exercising too little or not at all. As such, they suffer needless and easily avoidable health problems. As another example, many people form habits involving damaging substances ranging from sugar to opioids. These do considerable harm, yet people persist in their habits. Hillary seems have learned the habit of secrecy and, like many habits, she seems unwilling or unable to break it.

A third alternative is that Hillary has consciously adopted secrecy as a strategy. People do often stick with failing strategies for various reasons. It is also worth considering that she actually has a winning strategy. While the revelations about her email and her pneumonia have cost her politically, it could well be that she has other secrets that have been effectively kept and that doing so has proven very advantageous for her. To use a sports analogy, a team that has a good strategy does not win every time. However, they win enough to make it rational to stick to that strategy. One interesting thing about the strategy of secrecy is that the public only knows about cases in which the strategy failed, not the situations in which it worked very well. So, what seems to be a bad strategy because of a few very visible failures might actually be very effective—who knows what secrets remain hidden and what damage they would do if they were revealed?


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  1. First of all, the gap between politics as it is really practiced and the ideals which it proclaims make secrecy among politicians inevitable. Any politician who went around honestly explaining what they were up to would be out of business. And that goes for the most apparently saintly political figures: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Lincoln, etc., all of whom were a lot more Machiavellian than the mythology suggests. In politics, if you’re not Machiavellian, you get nowhere.

    There are politicians who just can’t win in the public eye. Nixon was one, Hillary Clinton is another. Whatever Hillary does, she is going to be attacked: if she hides the fact that she is sick, they’ll attack her and if she proclaims it, they’ll attack her too. It was the same thing with Nixon. They have a kind of anti-charisma. Now for the record, I’m not a fan of either Nixon’s or Hillary Clinton’s politics, but there are people in the public eye would will be blamed for whatever they do.

    As I recall, people said that Ronald Reagan had teflon: that is, whatever he did, all his mistakes and even crimes (Iran-Contras, etc.) slid easily off him. Hillary does not have teflon. That’s not a moral thing: it’s a personality trait that is impossible to alter.

  2. I was just about to comment that it is probably an advantage that any politician be of a secretive nature. Wallerstein develops this argument well, as he always does.

  3. My question is: When did a desire for personal privacy become “secrecy”? Since I work in a hospital complex, even though I have not interactions with patients and no access to patient records,I must regularly complete medical information privacy training. We have drummed into us repeatedly that the patient has the sole right to control any release of his/her medical information. We are expected and required by law to always respect the patients wishes in these matters. Why is it being secretive not to make an announcement about a minor illness? Is it not every person’s right to keep that information to themselves? Some people choose to post Facebook updates every time that they sneeze. Other people cannot imagine why somebody would want everyone in the world knowing what they are doing every minute of the day, nor why anybody would care.

    I believe that in the context of the Clinton campaign, the accusations of “secrecy” are really just driven by biases against her. If you assume that Hillary Clinton must be guilty of something, then the fact that no charges against her have come even remotely close to being proven, must mean that she is good at hiding her crimes. Every previous Secretary of State has used a private E-mail account because the State Department’s system does not work well and has been hacked repeatedly. In any case, the State Department does not use E-mail for confidential communications. It uses cables for that. No previous Secretary of State has been questioned about their E-mail usage or the losses of thousands of official communications. Only Hillary Clinton must have been hiding something with her personal server. George Bush “announced” that he had the flue during a state visit by throwing up on the Prime minister of Japan, but nobody accused him of being secretive about his health. Only Hillary Clinton is accused of keeping things from the press by trying to just work through an illness.

    So the first question that you should be asking yourself is whether or not Hillary Clinton is, in fact, being less open and disclosing than other people in similar circumstances. Alternatively, has the disclosure bar for her been set so high that nobody could clear it? Keep in mind that Donald Trump has released none of his tax returns and zero information about his charitable giving or the financial entanglements of his business ventures and the possible conflicts of interest they may create for him. Trump has required that his ex-wives and former employees sign nondisclosure contracts agreeing not to talk to the press about him or make any publicly disparaging comments about him. And yet, no one has been accusing Donald Trump of being “secretive”.

    Examine your premises. Before trying to analyze why someone is acting a certain way, you should first determine whether or not they are actually acting that way.

  4. It’s a bonehead strategy to withhold an illness from the public.

    If I am running a race against my adversary it’s to my advantage to hobble around and hold my ankle before the race. My opponent will almost always assume I am handicapped. If acted well, I can turn the situation to my advantage and my opponents will underestimate my advantage. And if I truly do have an injury, people are more likely to understand why I did not run as well as I could have.

  5. It is certainly reasonable to raise the point of fairness. As you note, Trump is keeping his tax information secret and handles questions about his health by going on Dr. Oz. It could be that Hillary’s secrecy issue is manufactured. It could also be that it is a matter of perception-she is simply seen as being up to something when she is not. In either case, she still needs to address either the manufactured claim (to counter it) or the perception issue (since perception is generally taken as reality in politics).

    It might be that the media is mad at her for not giving them the interviews they would like; so perhaps they are pushing the secrecy line against her. Or they are using that line to push her to disclose more to them, so they can put it into the news cycle.

  6. She and her handlers might have believed that making an announcement about her illness would give Trump more ammunition to use against her; perhaps they gambled she could power through it. It is also worth considering that it did not occur to anyone to make such an announcement. If she had suffered a stroke, sure. But being a bit ill might seem unworthy of a press release.

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