“Presidential fever” is the overwhelming, fervent desire to be elected president of the United States. Presidential fever can also refer to an extreme love of the office of the presidency.
Presidential fever is related to election fever, but the two are not the same. Election fever – a passionate interest in an upcoming election – is a term still used today. Presidential fever, on the other hand, has largely fallen out of use.
Presidential fever was a more common expression in the 19th century. One political cartoon from 1887 showed the US Senate facing a major outbreak of presidential fever. The drawing showed men drooping in their chairs, some with ice tied to their heads or with their feet in tubs of water; the caption reads “A dreadful attack of presidential fever in the US Senate.”
An 1872 woodcut in Harper’s Weekly showed Salmon P Chase and David Davis, both Supreme Court justices. The men are wearing their long judicial robes; they sit on a bench with newspapers at their feet. Both Davis and Chase sought the Republican nomination to the White House in 1872 – neither man won it.
Today, the term “presidentitis” is more commonly used to describe the obsession some people feel with becoming president. Presidentitis also refers to the drive to stay in power once the presidency is won.
The New York Post used the term to refer to ordinary South Dakotans’ veneration of all presidents, past, and present. The Post wrote:
Presidentitis has spread throughout South Dakota, though — just two hours from Rapid City sits the onetime bad boy of mining towns, Deadwood. The place still clings to the louche reputation it earned in prospecting times — after Las Vegas and Atlantic City, this was the third site in America to legalize gambling — but it, too, has a prim, presidential side.
The neighborhood of Engleside is gridded with streets named after presidents. “Washington and Monroe intersect at the old jail site,” stage-whispers one resident.
Each new POTUS is usually commemorated with some new road or drag, but the gulch in which the town sits limits its expansion much further.”
The New York Times published its own, tongue in cheek definition of presidentitis in 1931:
This well-known and dreaded disease is always epidemic in the United States the year before a Presidential election. The germ which causes it has not been identified by the political bacteriologists. But probably it is a “filterable virus” – or venom. Incidence of its attack is geographically varied and uncertain, but its ravages are most evident in Albany, various cities in Ojio, and are particular virulent in the Senate Chamber at Washington.
Presidentitis is not unique to the United States, though. The condition is widespread – in fact, the term may have been invented by the Haitian strongman “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The South African Independent brought this up after the former Haitian president Jean Bertrand-Aristide took asylum in South Africa:
At the time of his return in 1994, Aristide told the international media he would not rewrite the constitution and make himself president for life, as Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier did seven years after he was elected president in 1957.
It was Papa Doc who diagnosed “presidentitis” as a mania for the presidency that was to afflict his son Baby Doc Duvalier, against whose bloody reign Aristide led a revolt in a climate dictated by right-wing death squads and threats of military coups.”