At the Limits of Fitness and Suitability

Helena Zeweri, Anthropology

Who gets to embody the unspoken ideal of presidential stamina? How does gender play into norms concerning the presidential body? How these norms get applied reveals the very particular ways we imagine who, in fact, embodies the presidential body. In this election, stamina has been judged using two distinct standards: fitness and suitability.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “fit” is defined as “of a suitable quality, standard, or type to meet the required purpose.” Its etymology is rooted in the nineteenth-century definition of “in condition, properly trained for action.” The adjective “suitable,” however, is slightly more disconnected from the purpose or task at hand: “right or appropriate for a particular person, purpose, or situation,” with its etymology deriving from the sixteenth century definition of displaying a pattern of agreeability.

To be fit and to be suitable—to be able to carry out the task at hand versus to be appropriate, right, and agreeable. The former is pointed, defined through the specificities of one’s obligations. The latter connotes a general quality, demeanor, disposition—how one exists apart from the day to day tasks of the executive office.

While political pundits and media commentators devoted copious amounts of airtime to discussing which candidate had greater stamina to be President, they were also employing two distinct frameworks to measure and evaluate this stamina. One of these I want to suggest centers on “fitness” as “a condition, properly trained for action,” and the other on “suitable” as the condition of being “appropriate, agreeable, and right.” In this election, the evaluation of physical stamina through the unspoken metrics of “fitness” and “suitability” was symptomatic of the broader gendered disparities that continue to animate US political life.

Throughout the election cycle, reports and media commentary on Hillary Clinton’s health abounded, with reporters speculating on the potential physiological residues of her December 2012 fainting spell and subsequent cerebral blood clot. After a video showing Clinton’s neck and head jerking back and forth was widely circulated, media pundits like Sean Hannity speculated that she suffered from epileptic seizures and dementia. Other reports focused on the long pauses Clinton would make within speeches as somehow indicative of a larger neurological issue. After Clinton attended a 9/11 memorial in New York and was being helped into her car, video showed her losing her balance, leading conservative media outlets to speculate if she had Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson’s Disease. Others guessed she was diagnosed with “partial complex seizures.” Aside from whether or not they are accurate, these speculations are provocative because they reveal the gendered assumptions behind what embodied dispositions signal the capacity to be “presidential.”

Clinton’s stamina became a problem and issue in the moment when her bodily dispositions were directly correlated with particular tasks at hand. As long as these physiological manifestations were on display, the question of whether or not she could carry out the day-to-day tasks of the presidency—the long hours and stressful decisions– remained. Trump himself linked Clinton’s supposed physical illness to her inability to address particular obligations, stating that she “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS and all of the many adversaries we face, not only in terrorism but in trade and every other challenge we must confront to turn our great country around.”

By contrast, when addressing Donald Trump’s physical stamina, both Clinton supporters and conservatives focused primarily on his mental health. In an article in The Atlantic published in June 2016, the author, a trained psychologist, examines Trump’s public statements and rally speeches to make an argument about his psychological state. The author writes that Trump’s words are indicative of characterological traits that are symptomatic of an extroverted narcissist who is more interested in the pursuit of love and approval than in the actual job of the president. According to the author, this form of extroversion can explain Trump’s disagreeableness and predict to some extent the type of President he would be: “Research suggests that extroverts tend to take high-stakes risks and that people with low levels of openness rarely question their deepest convictions.” Another editorial in The Huffington Post referred to the DSM-5’s symptomology of narcissistic personality disorder, concluding that Trump fits the bill. What binds these commentaries on Trump’s health together is not only their exclusive focus on his mental state as a measure of physical stamina, but also on how they link that mental state to his imagined general demeanor in office. The diagnosis does not predict how Trump will carry out particular tasks. Rather, the authors of these articles are concerned with his suitability rather than his fitness.

And so, while Trump’s capacity for leadership gets evaluated based on general demeanor, Clinton’s gets evaluated based on the precision with which she could execute the day-to-day responsibilities of the executive office. The stakes of her success were framed as much higher. After the disclosure of her pneumonia diagnosis, headlines asked what would happen if Clinton fell too ill during the presidency. By contrast, Trump’s capacity to complete the presidency in good health went unquestioned. The two metrics—fitness and suitability–illustrate the forms of common sense that inhere in judgments about the presidential body. In particular, they point to the narrow frames through which we “know” capacity, strength, and leadership when we see it. Beyond arguing that these ideals reflect the uneven standards by which the candidates were judged, there is a more subtle but more important argument to make here. Inhering in both ideals is a normative ableist paradigm that privileges the presidential body’s capacity to mask particular forms of physiological distress, and its cognitive capacity to speak in agreeable ways. And so, while fitness and suitability constitute two different meritocratic ideals, both privilege a notion of stamina rooted in the display of specific bodies and intellectual and cognitive capacities. In the end, both end up setting a troubling and narrow precedent, as we attempt to create more inclusive and thoughtful frameworks for holding our political leaders accountable.