Cet article a d'abord été publié sur le Financial times.
The 2016 US presidential election continues to surprise and confuse. The latest twist has revealed that, after months of dismissing rumours about her health as conspiracy theories, we learn that Hillary Clinton has pneumonia. She had to leave a September 11 memorial event on Sunday, not entirely under her own steam, and has cancelled a two-day campaign swing through California.
There can be no doubt that this is bad news for Mrs Clinton’s campaign. It is not just that she has taken ill and will miss an unknown number of days of campaigning. It is also that her health problems and her campaign’s apparent efforts to hide them fall into two pre-existing narratives. Mr Trump and his surrogates have for months been seeding the media ground with the twin notions that Mrs Clinton is both frail and deceptive.
Developments that bolster longstanding narratives tend to be particularly bad for a candidate’s standing. Mitt Romney’s gaffe, during the 2012 election, that 47 per cent of the population were freeloading on the government was so damaging because it reinforced the idea that he was an unsympathetic plutocrat. Al Gore’s supposed quip that he invented the internet proved hard to shake because it highlighted the view of him as someone who inflated his own image at the expense of pesky facts.
So we can comfortably predict that questions about Mrs Clinton’s integrity and fortitude will dominate the news coverage in the next few days.
Cutting through all of the “narratives”, how much should Mrs Clinton’s health problems really matter? It is a serious subject of concern, of course. Presidential candidates have in the past often misled the public in this area. For years, most Americans had no idea that Franklin Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair. They never knew that John F Kennedy took large amounts of pain medication and stimulants for a variety of conditions. But, even with all the medical information in the world, voters always elect a president under a cloud of uncertainty about their health. That is inherent in the human condition.
It is particularly true this year. One of the many ironies of the 2016 campaign is that, in a youth-obsessed culture, the American people saw fit to nominate two candidates who are very old by recent standards.
Mrs Clinton is 68; Mr Trump, at 70, would be the oldest person ever to begin a presidency. The miracles of modern medicine mean that, according to the actuarial tables, Mrs Clinton will live to be 87 and Mr Trump will make it to 85. But those are only averages and things do still go wrong for people of their age — sometimes quite suddenly. This is why America has a well-defined succession and a proper vetting of the vice-president.
Mrs Clinton, when I worked in her state department, set a fierce pace of work that tired many of her younger colleagues. As she grows older, she will probably have to slow down a little. But that will still mean that she will probably spend more time on the job than Ronald Reagan or George W Bush, who were notorious for putting in relatively few hours. The even older Mr Trump would probably not be able to maintain such a pace, though judging by his relatively lackadaisical approach to campaigning there is little chance that he will try.
Overall, the health problem is likely to reinforce the electorate’s collective sense of despair over the choices on offer in 2016. Indeed, it now seems that the candidate that attracts the least attention may well win the election. So a few days of convalescence for Mrs Clinton may give Mr Trump the space he needs to generate the campaign’s next bizarre turn and accompanying media firestorm.
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