Dwight Eisenhower: The Media and his Heart Attack

Eisenhower had a left anterior myocardial infarction in September 1955, while on vacation at his in-laws' house in Denver. He was transported by car to Fitzsimmons Veterans Hospital and placed in an oxygen tent. His EKG showed ventricular and supraventricular premature beats. Although he developed a friction rub, he was treated with heparin 1. Eisenhower broke with precedent and released detailed information about his illness to the public, but nevertheless, some of what the public learned was carefully choreographed SEE BELOW 1. Eisenhower's long term treatment included coumadin 35 mg/wk, a low fat diet, and maintenance of weight at 175 pounds MORE 1a.

Eisenhower ascribed the initial symptoms of his heart attack to onions he had eaten. This is not surprising: he loved onions and garlic, and ordered the White House cook to serve them in a small side dish 2a.

Here are examples of how the release of information was managed:
  • Mrs. Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, presidential assistant Sherman Adams, and the president's press secretary were quickly told of the diagnosis 1b. Government officials were informed about the infarct 12 hours after it was documented by EKG 1c.

  • A day or two after the infact, Eisenhower's press secretary opened Ike's oxygen tent to ask how much information should be released at the upcoming press conference. Eisenhower was said to have replied that they should tell the public everything. As a result, Dr. Paul Dudley White discussed presidential details such as bowel movements and relevant nursing care, leading to criticisms of indiscretion 1b.

  • While in the hospital, Eisenhower wore red pajamas with 5 gold stars on the collar 1d.

  • Eisenhower's departure from Denver was delayed until he could walk to the airplane 1d.
Much of the concern about release of information to the public arose from a desire not to repeat the mistakes of Woodrow Wilson's administration. During the last 8 months of that president's time in office, the only people who had access to him were his wife, secretary, and physician.

Recall that in 1955 there was no constitutional mechanism for the transfer of power from an invalid president to the Vice President. While Eisenhower was hospitalized in Denver, his advisor Sherman Adams would usually spend most weekdays with him, then fly to Washington for the Friday cabinet meetings held by Vice President Nixon. This led to comments in the press about Adams as "shadow president" and Nixon as "Acting President" 1d. (It is interesting to recall that John Tyler had vigorously opposed the term "Acting President" when assumed the presidency after the death of William Henry Harrison.)

Cited Sources
  1. Kucharski, A. Medical management of political patients: the case of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 1978;22:115-126. Pubmed: 104273.
    a  p.123  b  p.117  c  p.119  d  p.120
  2. Parks, Lillian Rogers. My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. New York: Fleet Publishing, 1961.
    a  p.325

    Comment: This book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks, prompting Jacqueline Kennedy to require all staff at the White House to sign a pledge agreeing not to write about their experiences (NY Times, page B8, Nov. 12, 1997). Parks's mother, a maid at the White House from 1909-1939, had actually been encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt to write and publish a memoir (p260).

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