Mitch McConnell brushed off the question as if it was rude for reporters to ask whether he had any health issues.
“Of course not,” the Kentucky Republican, then the Senate majority leader, told the Capitol press corps in October 2020.
A week later, in a telephone interview, McConnell grew irritated that he still faced health questions. He directed me to re-watch clips of his speeches during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett: “Did you watch any of my speeches? Are you familiar? I am just fine.”
He wasn’t fine. Just as McConnell is not fine now. There were and continue to be health challenges, but his answers this week are only marginally more revealing than they were three years ago.
“I have nothing to add to that,” McConnell told reporters Wednesday, referring to the Capitol physician’s brief letters saying the GOP leader was medically fine to keep doing his job. “I think he pretty well covered the subject.”
In August 2019, McConnell fell while back home in Louisville, suffering a fractured shoulder that required follow-up surgery. In October 2020, he walked around the Capitol with grievously bruised hands, along with a puffed-up lip, just a few weeks before asking Kentucky voters for another six-year term, slated to end in early 2027 when he would be 84.
No matter. McConnell easily won reelection without ever addressing the mysterious bruises. Senate Republicans have kept easily reelecting him as their leader without really asking about his health or how long he intends to stay in office. After another fall in March that left him with broken ribs and a bad concussion, they welcomed him back, after six weeks away from the Senate, with a big ovation.
So this week, when the Senate returned from its 40-day summer break, McConnell faced another round of all-too-familiar questions about his health after two moments in late July and late August in which he froze up for about 20 seconds during news conferences.
As he’s done in the past, McConnell mentioned it in passing and then moved along. He declined to answer questions about the underlying causes of the falling episodes or the freezing incidents. He rejected the idea, floated by some conservative thought leaders, that he should step aside as leader and consider early retirement from the Senate.
“I’m going to finish my term as leader, and I’m going to finish my Senate term,” he told reporters. “Thank you,” he added, then walked off to end Wednesday’s news conference.
Inside the weekly GOP senators-only meeting, McConnell opened up for a couple minutes about the issues he faces. But Republicans said it was a similar rundown as to what was reported Tuesday in a letter from Brian P. Monahan, the Capitol physician: Neurologists have examined him, there is no evidence he has suffered a stroke or seizure, and that the freezing is likely related to the concussion in March.
No questions were asked, according to GOP senators, and the discussion quickly moved on to the political agenda, including a detailed polling presentation about the politics of abortion from leaders of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund.
By McConnell’s standards, friends considered this brief explanation downright revelatory. Some have been quietly encouraging him to be more open about these issues as an example of personal strength.
“He was more transparent, which I’m glad he did. I don’t think, sort of, keeping things close to the vest served his interests and created a lot of speculation,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a close ally. “So I think this is a positive development.”
Being that forthcoming about his health, Cornyn noted, “is not his style.”
As a child, McConnell battled polio, including trips to the treatment center in Warm Springs, Ga., where then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt received assistance, before the vaccine came along and largely eradicated the disease in the United States.
McConnell has at times embraced that as part of his identity, calling his autobiography “The Long Game” to explain how he spent nearly two years as a child not allowed to walk. He eventually played on his high school baseball team, won his student council presidency and, earlier this year, became the longest-serving Senate floor leader in history.
That’s the long approach to politics.
But McConnell, 81, can sometimes go years in between discussions about his childhood struggles, hailing from a generation that often sees admission of personal health problems as a sign of weakness.
There’s been no discussion about the relatively common struggles for elderly survivors of polio. Federal research has found that up to 40 percent of childhood polio survivors develop very similar symptoms later in life, leading to muscle weakness and atrophy, particularly in the legs, causing balance issues.
Instead, McConnell takes a similar approach as President Biden, 80, in terms of questions about age and health: talk and act tough.
Rather than bike rides at the beach — Biden’s preferred photo op to demonstrate vitality — McConnell used his first floor speech Tuesday to rattle off all the trips he had made around his state during the Senate’s summer break.
His Senate Leadership Fund super PAC told Fox News Wednesday that McConnell, in August alone, helped the super PAC and nonprofit group One Nation secure almost $50 million in commitments to help GOP Senate candidates next year. Senators left Wednesday’s lunch marveling at McConnell’s hard work.
“I think everybody left feeling very good about where he’s at,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), another McConnell ally, told reporters.
Yet they had no greater insight into McConnell’s underlying health problems, no certainty of whether these freezing moments would continue or whether more falls would be in the future.
But that’s part of the Senate culture, where personal health receives the “there but for the grace of God go I” approach.
“Every senator speaks for themselves,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader, said.
This has become a recurring theme in this year’s Senate, as McConnell and Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have all undergone health issues that have caused them to take extended leave from the Capitol.
In each instance, the senators have dealt with transparency in different ways. Feinstein, 90, went nearly two months without disclosing that her bout with shingles also caused much more severe side effects, including encephalitis, which is swelling of the brain. While Fetterman was criticized last year during his campaign for not being fully transparent, he has released detailed reports from doctors this year about the severe depression he’s suffered as a result from his stroke in May 2022.
Barrasso has been public in releasing updates on his wife’s “profound, advanced” battle with brain cancer.
“She’s not been able to be places that she would like to be, and normally people see her, because they see us together,” Barrasso said Wednesday. “You share the diagnosis [with your constituents], you share that we appreciate all the prayers and kind wishes.”
But McConnell remains elusive. Almost three years later, he’s still never revealed what caused his bruised hands and lip. That’s not likely to change.
“I’m just fine. And I can’t believe y’all have played with that all week long,” he said in that October 2020 interview, angry that reporters kept asking him questions about his health. “It is not an issue with me.”