Inside the Eyes of our Presidents
Some of our presidents were great and some not so great. But all had visions of our country's future. Their views covered new concepts involving the country's progress regarding our economy, security, public welfare, foreign affairs and a copious helping of the many and varied issues that have been problematic to presidents throughout our history.
What most of us lack is the knowledge about a president's vision behind his vision. What about their eyesight and how each dealt with their particular ocular problem? Resources can be found in publications by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, Ken VanCleave of the Ameritas Group, as well as additional information gleaned from various links via the internet.
As examples we can mention Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, who was severely myopic and wore contact lenses at all functions. In order to read his notes he would remove one lens and created a monovision effect very successfully. All those aforementioned were presbyopic and needed glasses for near vision and had other problems associated with increased age. George Bush (the first one) was treated for a glaucoma condition, styes and had an unusual blink rate. William Taft was subject to recurrent blepharitis and was once bitten on the eye by a bug. Jimmy Carter had eye problems associated with a tear gas episode early in his life. Herbert Hoover was almost blind and profoundly deaf. Richard Nixon exhibited an eye blinking habit of unknown origin.
James Buchanan, our 15th president, had an eye defect that forced him to tilt his head slightly forward and sideways when engaged in conversation. It coincidentally gave the impression of exceptional courtesy and attention to others. One of Buchanan's eyelids twitched which led one of his biographers to describe Buchanan as a "winking, fidgety little busybody." Zachary Taylor kept his eyelids half closed to sharpen his vision. He was very myopic and closed one eye when reading to prevent double vision.
A pair of glasses aided George Washington in preventing dissolution of his army. Washington had received an anonymous letter from a group of unhappy officers stating that if their demands were not met "they would retire to some unsettled country." A meeting was held between the disaffected army leaders and Washington. As he took the letter from his pocket to share it with the group, he had trouble reading the lines. Pausing to put on his glasses, he said, "Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind." The gesture seemed to affect the men greatly as they remembered past days of fighting for the American cause and leadership of Washington. When he left the meeting the officers expressed their confidence. A possible coup was averted.
Who knew that Honest Abe Lincoln had a "lazy eye?Ē His left eye, according to photos and portraits taken during his lifetime, seemed to deviate up and out. This was especially noted when he was excited or fatigued. News reports during the hotly contested 1860 debates with Stephen Douglas describe Lincoln's eye as "rolling wildly" as he spoke. Lincoln's left eye was set slightly higher in his head than his right with his left eyelid drooped a little. When he was ten years old Abe was kicked in the head by a horse. It is felt that he suffered nerve damage that led to a malfunction of his eyelid and the extra ocular apparatus. Lincoln suffered with diplopia, at times. In today's day and age, we are sure that efforts would have been made to correct his muscle strabismus. But suppose if Lincoln were alive today and he reached the Oval office with his eye condition untreated?
It is not hard to imagine the resulting eye fatigue, double vision and even some low grade behavior problems. The White House medical staff would probably insist upon corrective surgery. Do you think the president would pursue surgical intervention? Consider the fact that most people are hesitant to undergo anesthesia and prefer surgery only as a means of last resort. If we will follow our fanciful thinking to another level, how would Lincoln feel about adopting one of the many modern vision treatments to correct strabismus?
Woodrow Wilson was shocked one morning in 1906 when he awoke to find that he was nearly blind in his right eye. This was seven years before he was elected the 27th president. He had suffered a retinal hemorrhage He was told by his ophthalmologist to rest the eye as much as possible. No other treatment was available at the time. It was determined that Wilson had high blood pressure which might have caused a central retinal vein occlusion. This blockage probably caused bleeding and damage contributing to his reduced vision. Eventually there was some improvement in his vision, although, Wilson complained his golf game was never again as good as before.
By far the most interesting and dramatic case involves one of our most spirited presidents. Teddy Roosevelt was partially blind in his left eye and historians think he had a detached retina. This could have been caused by a blow to the head during one of his many boxing matches or from an earlier injury suffered during one of his adventurous forays. He relished vigorous pursuits. In addition to his boxing prowess he also enjoyed hunting wild game in foreign lands or leading his troops up San Juan Hill. His was the presidency of "The Big Stick," trust busting and strong nationalism. He often prepared his speeches on small sheets of paper with large printing and spaces between the sentences to help him see the material during delivery of the speech. Thus the manuscripts were necessarily very thick.
On Oct. 14, 1912, he arrived at the Milwaukee, Wisconsin train station shortly after five o'clock. He made his way through the large crowd to a waiting automobile that whisked him away to a private dinner party. After dinner Teddy waved to his admirers, put on his topcoat with the speech stuffed in one of the pockets, and left to head for the Milwaukee auditorium for a campaign rally. As he prepared to step into his car, a man rushed forward and jammed a gun into the ex-presidentís chest and fired. As two of Roosevelt's friends seized the shooter, he was heard shouting "Any man looking for a third term should be shot." Roosevelt seemed more stunned than injured but blood began staining his shirt. When Roosevelt removed his topcoat, it was clear what had happened.
The .32 caliber bullet had passed through the thick speech notes and lodged in his chest. If the speech had not been in his coat pocket, the bullet would have ripped straight into his heart. He demanded to be taken to the auditorium. He climbed to the podium in his blood spattered clothes and announced that he had been shot. Roosevelt showed off the bloody speech, unfolded it and, haltingly, began to speak. He made references to his manhood, his toughness and his dedication to the nation while disregarding his own safety. He declared, "It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose."
Since the assassination of Lincoln in 1865, the nation had suffered through two more slayings of our presidents: James Garfield and William McKinley. But for the inadvertent placement of a thick large print copy of his speech, Teddy would have been included in their number.
The need for eyeglasses is now universally accepted. Who can deny the added enjoyment of daily life and the difference it made in the lives of some of our presidents. There is an old proverb that says, "You can't control the wind, but you can adjust your sails."