Three weeks ago, John McCain, who would be the oldest president in history if elected, released 1,173 pages of his medical records to the press. He did so only after a series of delays, however, and then granted a pool of about a dozen news outlets access to them for three hours, with no photocopying allowed. One reporter whose employer was not invited to view the documents was The New York Times’s Lawrence K. Altman. His exclusion was a bit ironic, given that he is an M.D. and was part of the group that viewed the last batch of McCain’s medical records, which the senator released in 1999 during his first bid for the Oval Office. Those earlier records covered McCain’s well-being prior to 2000, including his experience as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and his treatment for melanoma, among other things. Lost month’s disclosure covered his life since and showed that the cancer has not recurred and that, despite a few effects of age, he is mostly healthy. There was quite a bit of media attention to the release of the records, but it hasn’t always been that way. Altman talked with CJR’s Curtis Brainard about how the press has come to be so interested in candidates’ health and protocols for covering their ailments.

Curtis Brainard: NPR had a report in 2003 about John Kerry’s and Bob Graham’s medical histories, which said that there’s been a “noticeable change in how forthcoming presidential candidates have been and should be about their health problems.” Do you agree?

Lawrence Altman: It depends where your starting point is. I would say, yes, if you’re looking at the history of say, presidential candidates or candidates for high office. In the past, White House physicians have been known to lie; candidates for president or nominees have been known to evade the truth, distort the facts, or lie. You’ve got Woodrow Wilson with a stroke and his wife allegedly running the affairs of the country; you’ve got Franklin Roosevelt who may or may not have been told how deathly ill he was in his last term, and certainly nothing was told to the country about it; you’ve got Kennedy every which way not acknowledging that he had Addison’s disease; you had [Thomas] Eagleton who had to leave the [Democratic] ticket in ‘72 because he didn’t tell [George] McGovern about his past history of electric-shock therapy and depression; and there was [Paul] Tsongas in the mid-1990s and the fact that he had a recurrence after they had maintained that he was cured of cancer.

I think all of those, collectively, led to the public to want to know more about the health of the people who were going to run their country. There has been a movement for candidates to disclose more information than they have in the past. Starting with [Ronald] Reagan in the 1980s, the Times and I started interviewing candidates; we did their medical histories, and we have done that for a number of presidents and candidates for other offices. And I guess over that period of time, it has been a custom or a standard for the presidents to disclose information about their health.

CB: According to an article in The Arizona Republic, “McCain’s Republican presidential campaign called the sweeping health disclosure unprecedented in the annals of American politics.” Is that accurate?

LA: It depends on how you want to define this. In terms of the information that [McCain’s campaign] released in 1999 — making the records available first to The Associated Press exclusively and then only reluctantly opening them to other reporters, including myself — there probably hadn’t been another candidate running for office who had been a prisoner of war and whose psychological constitution was being called into question. That may have been unprecedented.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.