Washington: When German Chancellor Angela Merkel was filmed shaking at an official ceremony in early June, her office brushed it off as an episode of dehydration. Then it happened again. And again.
And on Wednesday, when she opted to sit through the national anthem during an official visit with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, she was filmed trembling in her seat. After the event, she told journalists that she was fine, but "will have to live with it for a while".
"I am very well, and you don't need to worry about me," she said. "Just like how it has come, one day it will go away too."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel steadies her hands at a press conference in Berlin on Thursday.Credit:DPA/AP
The episodes have left questions swirling in Germany, where for more than a decade, she earned respect among Germans for her stamina. She was credited for regularly negotiating with her counterparts from around the world until deep into the night, often pushing them to the brink of exhaustion. Merkel herself usually appeared to be wide awake the next morning.
Many Germans were taken aback by the recent shaking episodes because the images they saw were so inherently different from the way the chancellor had presented herself since she was first elected in 2005.
To them, the incidents revealed the "weakness of a strong woman," as conservative German weekly Focus wrote, and they resurfaced the question of who will eventually succeed her. Merkel has said she will not run for chancellor again when her term ends in 2021.
After a weak performance in the 2017 elections, Merkel had found herself under mounting pressure to step aside. Among voters, Merkel remains Germany's most popular politician. But critics have seized upon these recent shaking incidents, and her office's choice not to expand on her medical details, as a new opportunity to lash out at a leader who they have previously accused of failing to be forthright about her politics and biography.
It remains unclear how medically serious Merkel's shaking incidents have been. But globally, her office is far from the first to keep private details of a leader's medical history, often to avoid rumours they are unfit for office or perceptions they are too weak or vulnerable for their positions.
A number of American leaders and high-profile politicians have chosen to keep their medical conditions out of the public eye. On the campaign trail in 2016, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton fell ill at an event honouring victims of the 9/11 attacks and had to depart earlier than planned.
Hillary Clinton (right) leaves a 9/11 ceremony early in 2016, in an incident which was later used by her political opponents.Credit:AP
An onlooker captured video that appeared to show her legs buckling as Secret Service agents helped her into her van. The campaign said she was dehydrated and later expanded to clarify that she had recently been diagnosed with pneumonia after a long allergy-related coughing spell.
Her somewhat mild illness came after months of accusations from her Republican competition that she was suffering from an undisclosed illness.
As The Washington Post reported at the time, her initial instinct to keep her pneumonia diagnosis secret "set in motion perhaps the most damaging cascade of events for her in the general-election campaign – giving fresh ammunition to Republican nominee Donald Trump, who lags in the polls, and spoiling a two-week offensive she had plotted before the first debate."
She later told CNN that she kept the diagnosis private and tried to power through because she "just didn't think it was going to be that big a deal."
Indeed, other leaders have hidden far more serious medical conditions from the public – often for years at a time.
Decades after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, new medical files revealed that he was taking a wide range of medications previously unknown to the public, including hormones and painkillers.
It was common knowledge that Kennedy had back pain, but these files showed that he had also been diagnosed with Addison's disease, a disorder in which one's adrenal glands don't produce enough hormones, the files revealed.
President John F. Kennedy. Details about Kennedy’s medical condition were disclosed following his assassination.Credit:William J. Smith
The disease is often developed after a bout of tuberculosis, so when there was public speculation that he was afflicted by the condition while he was alive, his aides carefully released a statement denying that he had tuberculosis-induced Addison's disease. That wouldn't rule out the possibility that he had developed Addison's through different means.
Eight months after Francois Mitterand left France's presidency, he died from prostate cancer in 1996. His personal doctor, Claude Gubler, said Mitterand had successfully hidden his illness from the public for years.
The revelations sparked outrage in France among those who saw Gubler's publication of personal medical details as a violation of strict privacy laws. But the reports were especially dramatic because Mitterand had pledged to publicize honest medical updates every six months to avoid any surprises, like when French President Georges Pompidou died in office in 1974, having never revealed that he was suffering from late-stage cancer.
Francois Hollande acknowledged that he underwent prostate surgery in 2011.Credit:AFP
Other French leaders have kept their illnesses private. In 2013, French President Francois Hollande acknowledged that he underwent prostate surgery in 2011, shortly before he announced his run for the presidency. He didn't publicize his medical condition, which was described as benign prostate swelling, until after he was elected.
More recently, health issues emerged as a campaign issue in Nigeria, where President Muhammadu Buhari was perceived to be in poor health ahead of 2019 elections. Throughout his first term, he spent long stints seeking medical care in Britain, but Nigerian officials never disclosed what type of treatment he needed or why.
As of early May 2018, he had spent at least 170 days in London on medical leave since taking office in 2015. The saga inspired conspiracy theorists in Nigeria, who claimed he had a body double in the capital of Abuja. He won reelection anyway.
The Washington Post
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