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  1. Florida Politics

Adam C. Smith: Hillary Clinton makes it hard to give her the benefit of the doubt

Hillary Clinton's most serious problem is not pneumonia. It's her chronic guardedness.

We see it when the Democratic nominee speaks, that sense that she calibrates everything she says in her head for political fallout. We see it in her avoiding press conferences for more than 270 days straight. We see it in the secretive way she handled her bout with pneumonia.

"Feeling great! It's a beautiful day in New York," she gushed to reporters after leaving her daughter's luxury apartment Sunday afternoon.

This was more than two hours after a bystander filmed Clinton, 68, unable to walk and stumbling into her van. It was about 48 hours after her doctor diagnosed her with pneumonia, although her campaign did not reveal that diagnosis until after 5 p.m. Sunday.

This crazy campaign is not going to turn on the former first lady's bout with pneumonia, or the way she and her campaign tried to hide her illness from the public.

But the way she and her team handled the episode this past weekend helps explain why battleground state polls show her neck and neck with a Republican nominee who has spent much of the year insulting large swaths of the electorate. It helps explain why it is so hard to find people excited about electing Clinton and why fewer than half of America's voters consider her honest and trustworthy.

The former secretary of state is so reluctant to trust the public with information about her — whether its emails on her personal server or her health diagnosis — that she makes it hard to give her the benefit of the doubt. Had her campaign revealed the pneumonia diagnosis Friday, she would have avoided yet another unforced controversy and probably earned praise for insisting on attending the 9/11 memorial ceremony.

"Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What's the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?" David Axelrod, top strategist for Barack Obama's campaigns, said on Twitter.

Clinton's wariness and resistance to releasing information unless compelled to is not new. Former White House adviser David Gergen suggested in his book Eyewitness to Power that her steadfast refusal to release Whitewater Development Corp. records requested by the Washington Post in 1993 helped lead to an independent counsel investigation that ultimately led to President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

"I believe that decision against disclosure was the decisive turning point. If they had turned over the Whitewater documents to the Washington Post in December 1993, their 7-year-old land deal would have soon disappeared as an issue and the story of the next seven years would have been entirely different," Gergen wrote.

To be fair, Trump has a poor record on transparency. He has not released tax returns and, so far, less health information than Clinton. Both campaigns said Monday that more medical information will be released soon.

It's also true that Trump, 70, and a number of conservative news outlets have for months been suggesting, with no evidence, that Clinton has serious health problems. A reader of Drudge Report headlines Monday might think Clinton is on life support, and most corpses look healthier than the photo of Clinton that Trump's allies at the National Enquirer selected for their latest cover.

"If her campaign had revealed she had pneumonia, the crazies would have said, 'No, she's got Parkinson's! My God, it's cancer! She's dying!' " said Patrick Manteiga, a Democratic strategist and editor and publisher of La Gaceta newspaper in Ybor City. "You'd be hearing in every church in south Texas that the woman has Ebola, Zika, something like that."

Likewise, longtime Clinton supporter Ana Cruz of Tampa brushed off the health question as a minor blip, suggesting that Clinton's reluctance to announce her illness was understandable given Trump's efforts to suggest she is not healthy enough to be president.

"The Trump rumor mill has been spinning for months about her health," said Cruz, a lobbyist and Democratic consultant. "Other than a cold that turned into pneumonia, she is very healthy. While we are at it, we should be asking a psychiatrist for their opinion on Donald Trump's mental stability and the effects of the aftermath of a Trump presidency. Her cold may last a few days, but Trump's words and actions could last a lifetime."

Actually, Trump's new campaign team seems to have reined in the candidate, restraining him from saying something so over the top as to distract people from focusing on Clinton's health issue. Still, the Republican nominee could not entirely resist suggesting in a CNBC interview Monday that there must be more to the story.

"You know, it was interesting because they say pneumonia on Friday, but she was coughing very, very badly a week ago, and even before that, if you remember. This wasn't the first time," Trump said. "So it's very interesting to see what is going on."

Screven Watson, a Democratic consultant in Tallahassee, said Clinton in hindsight would have come off more human if she had announced she needed to take a few days off the trail on Friday. Being a woman may factor into her thinking.

"I'm afraid, especially when it comes to health, that she may think she can't show any weaknesses," Watson said. "She's a woman who's a little bit older, so she doesn't want to show any weakness and feels like she has to be better than perfect."

Most presidential candidates have faced health questions — from Ronald Reagan's age, to cancer with John Kerry, John McCain and Bob Dole — but they did it before the world of social media. Bill Clinton won the nomination in 1992 against Paul Tsongas, whose doctors said he had beaten non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, although Tsongas died five years later at age 55.

Clinton's pneumonia should be gone in a few days, but her penchant for secrecy may be too ingrained. Her campaign would do well to consider a simple remedy that would rid her of many unforced errors: Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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