Why Are We So Obsessed With Putin's Health?

The health of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a subject of widespread speculation in recent days, with unproven rumors spreading that he might have Parkinson's disease or cancer.

The Kremlin has denied such speculation, but it hasn't stopped observers from probing small details in videos of Putin holding meetings—a tense posture or a brief tremble, for example.

However, it's not only Putin who has been subject to such scrutiny. For decades, political leaders in high office have been caught up in health speculation for even slight details, such as when Richard Nixon was seen sweating under studio lights during a TV debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960 or when Donald Trump sniffled during a debate between himself and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Trump's health was also subject to huge media attention in 2020 ahead of, during, and after a COVID infection that left him briefly hospitalized.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin seen at a meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on April 26, 2022. Rumors have circulated about Putin's health in recent weeks. Contributor/Getty

"When a political leader's humanity is on display the longest in an unscripted public event—during a televised live debate—perfect health is especially expected by a judgmental audience," David Clementson, a public relations expert in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Georgia, told Newsweek. "The public doesn't want to see a politician succumb to human emotion and release a teardrop from an eye, or to have symptoms of the common cold with a cough and congestion."

This might make sense during domestic elections when the nation's political, economic and social direction may depend on the health and general capacity of a leader. Why does it also seem to matter to the West with Putin?

"I think there are at least two reasons why people are interested in politicians' health," Aleksandra Cichocka, reader in political psychology at the University of Kent in the U.K., told Newsweek. "First, we want to know if someone is fit for office. This can be a legitimate concern, but can also be part of political attacks. I'm reminded here of Trump's campaign constantly questioning the health and stamina of Hillary Clinton. Questioning Putin's health might similarly be a way of challenging his leadership."

"However, there might also be a second reason for why stories of Putin's ill-health are so appealing," she continued. "The invasion of Ukraine poses an existential threat, and people might be motivated to explain why something so devastating is happening. Putin being unwell could help make sense of this otherwise incomprehensible situation."

All this may also explain why some politicians are so keen to keep any medical conditions private. Kennedy, despite coming off well in his 1960 televised debate with Nixon, had a long medical history that has only in recent decades become more thoroughly understood.

The former president suffered several ailments and was generally in more pain than the public knew at the time. He variously had colitis, a urinary tract infection, adrenal insufficiency, and had been hospitalized for back and intestinal ailments on several occasions between 1955 and 1957.