He's the leader of the free world; the commander in chief of the most powerful military on the planet; he makes decisions that profoundly affect our daily lives, and probably those of our grandchildren. But who is the president, really? Uncovering the truth behind our nation's leaders can be an all-consuming pursuit. For Harry S. Goldsmith, a professor of surgery in Nevada, the quest to uncover the truth about Franklin D. Roosevelt's medical history became a 20-year journey. It began when Goldsmith learned that the medical records of the 32nd president had been missing since 1945. What followed was the stuff of detective novels, with clues that sent Goldsmith around the country to track down anyone with insight into Roosevelt's deteriorating health. The culmination was "A Conspiracy of Silence: The Health and Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt" (iUniverse), which describes Goldsmith's labored untangling of this bit of history. Goldsmith spoke with NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: So when did your mission begin?
Harry Goldsmith: It started back in 1962. I was a resident at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Dr. George Pack, a famous doctor, gave a lecture there. Pack recounted a conversation he'd had with his close friend, Frank Lahey, a surgeon and founder of the Lahey Clinic. Over dinner, Lahey revealed that he had told Roosevelt he shouldn't run for a fourth term because he wouldn't survive it.
What was your reaction when you found out FDR's medical records were missing? Does that sort of thing happen much?
It's very rare, and especially for somebody of the stature of Franklin Roosevelt—his records disappearing, that is absolutely strange. Somebody had to suppress those records and for some reason, and that's what intrigued me. We know these records were kept in the safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and I've been told that 48 hours after Roosevelt's death they disappeared. There were only three people who had access to the safe: the commanding officer, the executive officer and Adm. Ross McIntire, Roosevelt's personal doctor, who was their chief. It seems reasonable to believe that it was McIntire.
You said that Lahey knew about Roosevelt's poor health. Did McIntire know also, and keep it quiet?
He kept information from the public, not only during Roosevelt's lifetime but even after Roosevelt had died. He was saying that Roosevelt was always in excellent health, and we know that this is not the case.
How do you think the 1944 election would have been different if Lahey had gone public with his assessment of Roosevelt's failing health?
Well, in 1944 the question was, "Is Roosevelt strong enough for a fourth term?" If that information had leaked out that he was in poor health, there was a chance he might not have won.
You also say in your book that the Democratic leaders found out about Roosevelt's failing health, and used that information to basically blackmail him to agree to have Harry Truman as his vice president instead of Henry Wallace.
Wallace was very much disliked by the Democratic leaders at that time. He was very aloof, a lot of people considered him to be quite strange, and he didn't seem to get along with these people, although Wallace was a good friend of Roosevelt's.
When you were on this quest, what was the most shocking discovery? What was the deepest buried bit of information you discovered?
Well it had to do with a lawsuit. I found out that Dr. Lahey had left a memorandum regarding Roosevelt's health, which he wrote just before the convention in 1944 saying that he didn't think Roosevelt would survive a fourth term. He left this memorandum with his business secretary, who eventually became head of the Lahey Clinic. She left it in her lawyers' office just for safekeeping, [but when she asked to get it back] they would not give it to her. It took a lawsuit for her to get it, which took a year and a half in the courts and finally had to be decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Is this sort of cover-up something you could see happening today?
Presidential health information used to always be kept very, very secret. Go back to Woodrow Wilson: he had a stroke and for almost two years he was incapacitated and the country was run by his wife. Everything was pretty much kept from the public until the 1970s when President Carter had a hemorrhoidectomy and all that was in the paper. Since then it's been almost fair game. Usually any time the president goes in for a checkup or anything, you hear all the details pertaining to his condition.
Do you think that the candidates in this year's election were forthcoming about their medical histories?
There's a huge amount of information that's come out about [Sen. John] McCain: everybody knows he's had multiple melanomas and so forth. Obama didn't let any records out, just one piece of paper by his family doctor just saying he's in great health. I always wonder why somebody who hasn't had surgery or bad problems would want to suppress his medical information. As far as Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are concerned, we know about Biden's brain aneurysms. I've heard they wanted records of Mrs. Palin's five deliveries, and I think that's crazy. Why does anybody have any interest in what happened when she was pregnant?
What's the right amount for the public to know, then?
People didn't even know that Roosevelt was handicapped. But just knowing things isn't important. We know Vice President Cheney has a bad heart, but look at him. People eight years ago didn't think he'd survive the first term of Bush, but here he is, hale and hearty. So you never can tell. But if somebody's running for office and there's a good chance that they might not survive, probably that would influence many people.
Did this experience change your attitude about the government? Do you wonder what else might be hidden?
I think everybody today ought to be skeptical of the government. You never know what's being done or not done, what's being said or not said.
Is there a next quest for you? Another medical secret to uncover?
No, I'm a doctor, and this is just something I got interested in. But my interest is continuing to write medical papers.
So you've put this to bed?
Oh, it's finished.