To what extent does the public have the right to know about the mental health of its politicians?
This is what we should be asking ourselves after the revelation that Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. is receiving "intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder." Although his doctor claims that Jackson is responding positively to his therapy, this hasn't stopped Jackson's family from asking the public to not seek too much information. As The Huffington Post puts it, "his wife has said little and Jackson's civil rights leader father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., has called it a private issue and repeatedly declined to give details."
Under normal circumstances, this would be a reasonable request. As history has shown, however, the standard rules of etiquette can't always apply to high-ranking public officials.
This was most famously demonstrated in October 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson fell victim to a debilitating stroke and his wife and staff, instead of relinquish power to Vice President Thomas Marshall, chose to secretly run the government themselves for the last 17 months of his administration. When the public found out about this years later, the ensuing outrage naturally caused politicians to be held to much higher standards, so that by the time President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a more minor stroke in November 1957, the press was thoroughly informed as to the details of his condition. Similarly, when Democratic presidential candidate Senator George McGovern chose a vice presidential running mate who had been treated for manic depression (Senator Thomas Eagleton), the resulting controversy (first from having made that pick in the first place, then from unceremoniously dropping him after publicly declaring his "1000 percent" support) caused irreparable harm to his already-struggling candidacy in the 1972 election.
Of course, because each of these stories involved either presidents or people who could have conceivably inherited the presidency, the need for full mental health disclosure was much more obvious. The question here, however, is whether that same standard applies to others who hold high-ranking political offices. What about former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose lifelong battle with bipolar disorder wasn't revealed to the public until his involvement in a drunk-driving accident in 2006? Or former Congressman David Wu, who began to display increasingly erratic behavior during the 2010 elections (e.g., photographing himself wearing a tiger suit) and received two interventions from his campaign staff? How about cabinet members like Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, who was ultimately fired by President Harry Truman after his severe depression and general instability resulted in anti-Semitic paranoia, mental breakdowns, and even suicide attempts?
In the end, if an elected official has an extreme mental condition that could compromise his performance, the people have a right to know about it. While the stakes may have been higher for presidents like Woodrow Wilson — whose visionary leadership was needed in the months after World War I to galvanize Americans behind the League of Nations and thus either convince Congress to approve the treaty or elect James Cox over Warren Harding in 1920 — there were still serious consequences in non-presidential cases. For Forrestal, they impaired his ability to be a reliable overseer of America's defense establishment during the sensitive early years of the Cold War; for Kennedy and Wu, they called into question not only whether they could competently meet the needs of their constituents (in Rhode Island and Oregon, respectively), but also whether they could be trusted to shape policies that were national in scope through their various congressional committee assignments.
This isn't to say that we should shy away from politicians who struggle with mental health problems. Indeed, there are historians today who believe Abraham Lincoln suffered from manic depression and that Thomas Jefferson had Asperger's Syndrome, neither of which stopped them from ranking among our most distinguished presidents. Americans need to be more open-minded in how they view psychological disorders, since the vast majority of stigmatized conditions do not impair people's ability to contribute in meaningful ways to society. Nevertheless, when a condition is especially serious, voters have the right to know about it. While it remains to be seen whether Jesse Jackson Jr.'s mood disorder is severe enough to warrant serious concern, history makes it clear that the public at the very least has the right to learn more about his condition so that it can decide for itself.