Nearly four decad~safter the death of John F. Kennedy, the men appointed to protect his reputation finally allowed a scholar limited access to his medical records. It turns out that JFK was a lot sicker than anyone imagined, though biographers had imagined a lot, and he was under the influence of a wide variety of drugs most of the time he was president. The medicines, we now learn, included /I corticosteroids for his adrenal insufficiency; procaine shots and ultrasound treatments and hot p~cks for his back; Lomotil, Metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss; penicillin and other antibiotics
For most of his life, Kennedy was racked with pain. Several times he was at death’s door. Throughout all this, however, he and his staff systematically concealed and lied about his medical problems.
for his urinary-tract infections and an abscess; and Tuinal to help him sleep.” One might have thought he could put himself to sleep just by counting his medications, but apparently he couldn’t.
For most of his life, Kennedy was racked with pain. Several times he was at death’s door. Throughout all this, however, he and his staff systematically concealed and lied about his medical problems, fearing that if voters knew, they’d not be likely to give him as much power as he craved.
The carefully chosen historian, Robert Dallek, was allowed only to read Kennedy’s medical records and take notes under the supervision of Kennedy staff. And Dallek proved to be a good choice for the keepers of the Kennedy Myth. In the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Dallek prefaces a summary of what he learned from the files by pointing out that past presidents had also failed to disclose life-threatening illnesses to the public, and suggesting that Richard Nixon had ordered burglaries of Kennedy’s medical records during the 1960 campaign. The implication, of course, is that this justifies the elaborate lies of Kennedy and his tenders.
The three sketchily told 19th-century cases of presidential secrecy are instructive, if only for their lack of relevance to the Kennedy mythos. The first case is William Henry Harrison, whom Dallek identifies as “the first Chief Executive to hide his frailties.” Harrison, a former frontier soldier, died of pneumonia after only a month in office. All the accounts I’ve read say that he came down with the disease after refusing hat and coat while riding a white stallion
Kennedy’s entire life – together with his afterlife as a political figure – has been the product of conscious myth-making.
public got wind of his illness, it would be difficult if not impossible to deal with the problem. So Cleveland kept the cancer secret, endured extremely painful surgery in the privacy of a yacht at sea, and maintaining his authoritative position as an active president, successfully lobbied Congress to repeal the ruinous legislation. Cleveland recovered from his illness, and lived another quarter-century.
What’s interesting about these cases is that in each of them the president was afflicted while in office. The Constitution did not then provide any way for the president to turn over responsibilities to the vice president without actually dying. Keeping news of presidential afflictions private arguably prevented worse crises. In Cleveland’s case, concealment was an act of actual heroism.
Kennedy’s actions were vastly different: he had been seriously ill for decades before he even sought the presidency, very often suffering from severe pain and taking many different medications, including anti-psychosis drugs that could easily affect his judgment. One must question the judgment of a historian who could picture Kennedy’s actions as at all similar to those of Harrison, Taylor, and Cleveland.
But it gets worse. Dallek’s suggestion that Nixon hired thieves to obtain Kennedy’s medical records is offered without a scintilla of evidence. Dallek reports that in 1960 the office of two of Kennedy’s many physicians were ransacked by thieves who were never apprehended or identified. From this, he surmises that the first burglary was a failed attempt to find records of Kennedy’s health, and that when the thieves failed at that, they committed the second burglary.
After reporting the extent of JFK’s health problems and the huge amount and variety of drugs he was taking, Dallek is careful to conclude that there is no evidence that the pain, drugs, or brushes with death ever affected Kennedy’s judgment or leadership. Oh, Kennedy “was not without failings” – invading Cuba and moving too slowly on civil rights – but “they were not the result of any physical or emotional impairment.”
It’s a sorry spectacle all the way around, but I don’t see why any of this should surprise anyone. Kennedy’s entire life – together with his afterlife as a historical figure – has been the product of conscious myth-making. His father was a Hollywood producer enamored with the value of public relations and convinced that it was possible to portray anyone – whether a movie star, a movie producer, or a politician – in any way one wanted, if one was only willing to pay for the right public relations experts. Every element of JFK’s public image was assiduously created and maintained by a staff of hired experts; best-selling books were written and credited to Kennedy; his views on most public issues were hidden from the public, as were his remarkably extensive sexual escapades. Portraying him as a healthy vigorous man in the prime of his life, when he was actually an extremely sick man, barely able to live anything resembling a normal life, and getting the medical treatment typical of a man in his eighties.
Dallek’s account of JFK’s health includes one episode that is particularly revealing about JFK’s character and the character of his father, whose ambition drove his pursuit of power. By 1954, after Kennedy had won a Senate seat and had started on his way to the White House, his “back pain had become unbearable.” He was using crutches almost all the time, and could hardly walk from his office to the Senate floor. His physicians proposed a rather avant-garde surgery, telling him that he might otherwise lose the ability to walk, but that given his other diseases, the surgery could easily prove fatal.
His father urged him not to have the surgery, “remind- ing him of FDR’s extraordinary achievements despite confinement to a wheelchair.” For once, JFK defied his father. According to his mother, “Jack was determined to have the operation. He told his father he would rather be dead than spend the rest of his life hobbling on crutches and paralyzed by pain.”
Apparently, then, only his father exceeded JFK in lust for power.