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Dallek and Kennedy: The Media Reaction

Douglas Turner, in the Buffalo News (11-25-02):

A well-intended article in Atlantic Monthly by historian Robert Dallek about the illnesses and medications used by John F. Kennedy as congressman, senator and president has loosed a torrent of coarse articles by the right-wing and gotcha press.

The reactions range from charges of a massive coverup by the press and Kennedy's corps of attendants to speculations about whether he could ever have been elected president had the truth been known.

Some headlines:

"Kennedy Had a Cocktail of Drugs."

"Kennedy Popped Lots of Pills." Central to all this is a device necessary to sensationalist writing: That nobody, or hardly anybody, really knew how afflicted JFK was when he ran for those offices, and that important information about his health was closely held, even after his death, until now.

The truth is that Kennedy's frail health was well known to the voters of Massachusetts when they sent him -- on a magic carpet of Joe Kennedy's money -- to the House and Senate.

Even sympathetic biographers wrote during the 1960 presidential campaign that Kennedy had to be brought home sick from the Choate Prep school. Many biographies of that time carried pictures of Kennedy being airlifted home from a dangerous operation on his back in 1954 -- his second spinal surgery -- only months before he ran for the U.S. Senate.

The articles noted that Kennedy had his first back operation in 1944. The political spin of that day was: Here you have a brilliant, suave and well-educated war hero, so wealthy he won't need to steal while in public office, a man who has experienced pain and near-death.

Thirty-nine years after his assassination, Kennedy's story is still the same, despite these "revelations," and the nation and its political system have still not recovered from the way he was taken from us.

Peggy Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal (subscribers only) (11-22-02)

When the brilliant journalist Dorothy Thompson watched JFK's inauguration she -- a longtime liberal and FDR supporter -- fretted to a friend:"There's something weak and neurotic about that young man." She knew his story, knew of the charming monster of a father who was an isolationist in foreign affairs and a constant interventionist in all other spheres, especially his family. In Clark Clifford's memoirs, the old Democratic Party warhorse-in-lawyer's-pinstripes wrote of his first meeting with Sen. Kennedy, in the 1950s. JFK was pliant, pleasing, needed legal assistance. During their meeting old Joe called to bark instructions and yell at the senator and the attorney. Clifford found it chilling. JFK handled his father coolly. To read the scene with recent revelations in mind is to wonder what toll the facts of his life took on JFK, and to ponder a paradox. Old Joe's blind ambition probably made his son president; old Joe probably made his son sick, too.

Robert Dallek, the historian to whom the JFK records were made available, is careful to say in his Atlantic Monthly article that JFK's refusal to complain about his pain was gallant. I would add: and old school. He didn't feel your pain; he felt his, and kept it to himself. You find yourself feeling more personal admiration for him after the revelations, not less. Sick as a dog from childhood, he lived as a wit, an activist, a rake.

  • But Mr. Dallek is perhaps too quick to assert that none of the drugs JFK took, or the conditions he suffered from, seem to have impaired his leadership. He notes that JFK had three doctors treating him, one of whom, the famous"Dr. Feelgood," Max Jacobson, was giving him amphetamine shots during his first summit with Krushchev. There, JFK displayed an utter inability to defend free-market capitalism in the face of Krushchev's coarse onslaughts on the superiority of Marxism. Kennedy flailed. After the meeting Krushchev operated with a new belligerence, cutting Berlin in two with a wall and placing missiles in Cuba.

    Laurence Leamer, author of The Kennedy Men, 1901-1963 in the Boston Globe (11-22-02):

    Most of this medical history had already been explored or speculated upon in a series of books in the last two decades. What was new was the overwhelming detail, the dramatic context, and the sense that finally here was the full, unmitigated truth. As important as it is that the Kennedy Library is finally opening up these files, if only to one select researcher, they offer a skewed, incomplete picture of Kennedy's health and his medical life in the White House.

    Last year in my book, ''The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963,'' I had the first time use of the material that Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, secreted away when she left the White House. This is precisely the kind of material that probably would have been excised before reaching the Kennedy Library.

    In November 1961, Dr. Eugene Cohen wrote President Kennedy an extraordinary letter warning him about injections filled with amphetamines that he was receiving from Dr. Max Jacobson. ...

    President Kennedy made his own choices. We can only ask ourselves what kind of president he would have been if had listened to Cohen, gotten rid of Jacobson, stopped taking Novocain injections, and attempted to deal with his health in other ways.

    Editorial, Boston Globe (11-22-02):

    There was no small amount of hubris in this ailing man who insisted on projecting an image of vitality while commanding a US Navy PT boat and running a country - risks that courted disaster not only for himself but for others.

    And yet America would have been poorer for not having had those Kennedy years. ''Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both suffered from terrible bouts of depression,'' Dallek noted in a telephone interview. ''Would we have denied them their time in office?''

    Sorensen, a longtime Kennedy aide, said in a telephone interview that while serving in the Kennedy White House he was aware of the president's back pain but did not know the extent of his illnesses and never saw him incapacitated. ''He was famous for focusing his mind like a laser on the problem before him,'' Sorensen said.

    Richard Reeves, New York Times (11-21-02):

    Paul Fay, who served with John F. Kennedy in World War II, remained close enough to the lieutenant who would become president that he occasionally watched J.F.K. inject himself in the thigh with the corticosteroids that kept him alive. The president used that needle twice every day to replace the adrenaline his glands no longer produced because he had Addison's disease.

    Jack, said Paul Fay, the way you take that jab, it looks like it doesn't even hurt.

    The president lunged at his friend and stabbed the needle into his leg. As Paul Fay screamed in pain, Kennedy said, it feels the same way to me.

    Paul Fay told of that incident in the manuscript of"The Pleasure of His Company," a memoir he wrote in 1966. No one knew that, though, because the president's widow, Jacqueline, and his brother, Robert, crossed out those paragraphs before publication. That was the way it was done. Kennedy lied and lied about his health while he was alive, even using his father's influence to get into the Navy without ever taking a medical examination. After he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, his family and the men who had served him continued the lying and began the destruction, censoring and hiding of Kennedy's medical records.

    David Frum, National Review blog (11-20-02):

    Vi-gah: Robert Dallek’s revelations about John F. Kennedy’s frail health are fascinating but incomplete. The story of the Kennedy entourage’s denial of their leader’s illnesses and drug regimen is not merely a story of one man’s courage – or even one man’s deceit. It is a story of political manipulation; probably the most successful and enduring act of political manipulation of this century.

    Kennedy’s 1960 campaign was organized around one central theme – that Eisenhower’s Republicans were too old and sick to cope with the Soviet threat. Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack in 1955 and then a mild stroke in 1957. After the stroke, Eisenhower sometimes had difficulty speaking, a disability that the White House press corps savagely mocked. When the mythical “missile gap” was discovered after the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite in 1957 – and then when the economy slipped into recession in 1958 – Eisenhower’s illnesses became a handy metaphor for all that was supposedly feeble and out-of-date about the Republican administration.

    Unlike Franklin Roosevelt’s concealment of his polio, Kennedy’s pretended vigor was not a defensive maneuver. The pretense was the core of his message. When the leaders of the Western alliance gathered in 1959-60 – Eisenhower, Macmillan, Adenauer, De Gaulle, Diefenbaker, they looked old. Kennedy offered the voters more than a new program and a new philosophy. He offered vitality - vitality that would “get the country moving again” after the supposed slough of the Eisenhower years. To sustain the pretense, Kennedy threw away his hat and played football for the cameras, kept up an artificial tan and ceaselessly promised “vigor.”

    Editorial, Los Angles Times (11-19-02):

    Because we didn't know of Kennedy's numerous infirmities and treatments, we couldn't admire his courage and stamina. Nor, by design, could we ponder the combined and accumulating effect of so many drugs, some administered without White House medical approval. The Kennedys feared, with reason, that had voters in 1960 known of his afflictions, Kennedy would lose what became one of U.S. history's closest presidential elections. That decision, however, should be up to the voters, not a close-knit clan of relatives and ambitious aides.

    No one, least of all public figures, likes personal problems disclosed. But those seeking high elective office forfeit many things, including much privacy. American voters had and have a right to the fullest medical information on would-be leaders. And the media must report it fully and fairly.

    To the extent these disturbing revelations feed a modern predilection to suspect that everyone in public life hides evil secrets, they're unfortunate. But there are encouraging signs too: First, the information that some try so hard to hide eventually gets out. Second, Americans in the last 40 years have displayed evolving sophistication in judging what matters in candidates.

    Once, certain religions and racial backgrounds were disqualifiers for elective office, as was being female, divorced, gay or disabled. Once, a previous cancer or a heart condition precluded public service. Now, we have made great advances both in health care and thinking. Serious medical conditions still may preclude service, in the collective judgment of thoughtful citizens. The impressive development now is that they need not.

    Andy Rooney on Donahue, MSNBC (11-19-02):

    DONAHUE: It was revealed just not -- as you know, not long -- last week, that ex-president John Fitzgerald Kennedy presided over the country with far much -- far greater pain than we ever knew. Why did it take so long to get out? And did you have a hint? And should it take this long? Why didn't we know about this sooner?

    ROONEY: It looks like a book to me.

    I just wonder how much of this is hype for the book and how much it is true. I mean, I was thinking last night, I have a cold. And the doctor told me to take some blood pressure pill. And he already told me to take an aspirin. And I said, What am I doing? I'm taking all these pills. And I wonder what would happen if I ground them all up in a dish and put water in it and took all the different pills in one.

    But everybody's taking a lot of pills these days. We find a lot of things that help us, help our bodies. And he was on the -- he was at the head of the line for medical attention. And I doubt if we knew he had a bad back, but I think a lot of this is hype.

    NBC Nightly News (11-18-02):"What he did, what he endured now raising the question whether the image of Camelot has been tarnished or enhanced."

    The image so carefully cultivated was of fitness and vigor. But medical records kept secret the last four decades showed that in his last eight years, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was much sicker than the public was told and more dependent on drugs, taking painkillers for his back, steroids for Addison's disease, antispasmodics for colitis, and hormones for a thyroid condition. Medical records were reviewed by Dr. Jeffrey Kelman.

    Dr. JEFFREY KELMAN: What surprised me mostly was how much chronic disease he had to put up with from age 13 until his death.

    FAW: Those records also showed Kennedy took methadone and codeine for pain, Ritalin as a stimulant, librium for anxiety and barbiturates to sleep, and had a back so painful White House physician Dr. Janet Travell was indispensable.

    Dr. KELMAN: She was, at times, injecting him with novocaine on almost a daily basis--seven or eight times a day in different locations just so he could face the day.

    FAW: Former Kennedy aides like counselor Theodore Sorensen say the disclosures are only one small measure of JFK.

    Mr. THEODORE SORENSEN: What's in the medicine cabinet is not a reflection of a person's vigor and fitness.

    FAW: Other aides, like historian Arthur Schlessinger, say the medicines affected neither Kennedy's judgement nor actions.

    Mr. ARTHUR SCHLESSINGER: It affected his behavior only in the--his occasional incapacity to pick up his children.

    Atlantic Monthly (11-18-02): Robert Dallek discusses new revelations about President Kennedy's serious health problems and his efforts to keep them hidden.

    Dallek discovered that Kennedy worked hard throughout his life to hide his sickliness from others. In college he tried to obtain his prescriptions in secret, and during his military service (which was made possible only by using his father's connections to persuade the military physicians to overlook his problems), he refused to report to the infirmary, even after he strained his back rescuing several of his men when a Japanese destroyer sank his boat. Later, when he went into politics, keeping his health problems a secret came to seem even more important. If the public knew how ill he really was, and how many heavy-duty medications he needed to take just in order to function normally, he feared that voters would be unwilling to take a chance on him. Thus, he took his medications in secret, avoided being seen with doctors, and concentrated on moving normally and concealing his pain when in public. When aides to Lyndon B. Johnson, his opponent for the 1960 Democratic nomination, reported to the media that Kennedy had Addison's disease, Kennedy responded by having his doctors issue a statement denying the illness, and proclaiming him to be in"excellent" health.

    In all likelihood, Dallek speculates, Kennedy was correct to assume that Americans would not have voted for him if they had known the truth about his health. And it is probably also safe to assume that many would have been justifiably angry to discover that they had been misled into taking a gamble on a frail, heavily medicated candidate. But as President, Dallek points out, Kennedy proved to be an effective and inspiring leader whose performance was not discernably affected by health considerations.

    NYT editorial (11-19-02): The J.F.K. File ..."The time for making careful judgments about what the public should know about John F. Kennedy is past."

    The biographer Robert Dallek examined the medical files in the Kennedy Library with a physician, Jeffrey Kelman, after being given permission by the committee that controls access to the Kennedy papers. The files reveal a man not only in almost constant pain, but under nearly constant medication — from a longstanding series of ailments including irritable bowel syndrome, osteoporosis, Addison's disease and a serious propensity for infection. Even a partial list of medications that Kennedy took during the last eight years of his life is a daunting one, including hydrocortisone, testosterone, codeine, methadone, Ritalin, antihistamines, anti-anxiety drugs, barbiturates to help him sleep, and regular injections of Procaine to ease his back.

     It's possible to argue that this litany of drugs was merely the scaffolding that supported Kennedy, that made it possible for him to bring his character and intellect to bear on the presidency. And one has to marvel at the brave stoicism that allowed him to carry on from day to day, impersonating not just a healthy chief executive but an athletic one. Still, it's hard to read the list of ailments and medications without wondering whether there were times when he may have been too impaired to do the job he was elected to do.

    NYT columnist William Safire (11-18-02):"These emerging revelations display Kennedy's penchant for political concealment and media manipulation — ameliorated by his inspiring example of willingness to undergo great pain to succeed in wielding great power."

    On the eve of the 1960 Democratic convention, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson personally called a doctor in California who had let slip a confidence about Senator John Kennedy being treated regularly with powerful drugs to combat Addison's disease, a painful and debilitating ailment. The doctor was evasive.

     After J.F.K. defeated L.B.J. for the nomination, a disgruntled Johnson aide passed the tip along to the Nixon forces. I heard Bob Finch talk to a doctor named Blood, and then to a reporter who queried the Kennedy doctors. They brushed it off as"a mild adrenal deficiency" and asserted that the candidate had"a better than average resistance to infection."

     These blatant lies were endorsed by the candidate himself as Election Day approached. If, as some speculate, Nixon operatives searched doctors' offices to get the truth, they failed: voters were never told of Kennedy's need for a corticosteroid that suppressed his immune system.

    NBC Today Show interview with Dr. Jeffrey Kelman (11-18-02):

    COURIC: Were you surprised when you got ahold of the material, Dr. Kelman, and you saw the extent of John F. Kennedy's maladies? He's always been portrayed and--as someone who was young, vigorous, robust, and yet he suffered from a variety of flick--of afflictions. We knew, for example, that he had Addison's disease, some kind of adrenal malfunction. But, tell me some of the other things that he experienced while president and even before that?

     Dr. KELMAN: What surprised me mostly was how much chronic disease he had to put up with from age 13 till his death, and how much pain he had to overcome for the last 10 years of his life. I mean, in 1930, when he was 13, he started having abdominal pain. By 1934, when he was in Chote, he started one of what was going to be many admissions to the Mayo Clinic for colitis. By 1940, he had back pain, this was before he was in the South Pacific. And in '44, he needed back surgery for the first time. By '47 he was first officially diagnosed as having Addison's disease, which is a kind of adrenal insufficiency. And in '54 and '55 he had back operations again, one to put in a plate and the other to take it out. And from that point on, he was in chronic pain.

    HNN: Are we being manipulated?

    There remains the uncomfortable suspicion that we are being had. By giving up the medical secrets about JFK to a single scholar presumably inclined to put them in a positive light, the Kennedy family and their adjuncts leave the impression that we are once again being manipulated. The Camelot legacy, now half a century old, is still being burnished. The keepers of the flame, to switch metaphors, are still tending to the Kennedy fires."I was with J.F.K. for 11 years," Ted Sorensen told the New York Times,"and for so many of those I was trying to refute, rebut rumors that he was suffering from this disability or that, and that's why as a general rule, if those medical files were placed in the library under very restricted conditions by the family, as the family's nominee, I just couldn't agree that they would be opened to any Tom, Dick or Harry because I knew a bunch of them would seek to exploit them."

    HNN: Presidents who have lied about their medical history

    NBC Nightly News (11-17-02):"Now to the secrets of Camelot."

    VIRGINIA CHA (REPORTER): Along with debilitating back pains, leaving him unable to pick up his own children, Kennedy suffered from a litany of other problems from intestinal pain to high cholesterol, as high as 410. To relieve the agony, his doctor injected him with an anesthetic up to eight times before public events, all of which the president and his family went to great lengths to cover up. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

     Ms. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (Presidential Historian): I think from the family's point of view, they must have felt that if the public understood the extent of his ailments, they might have been wary about making him president.

     CHA: But how much did Kennedy's health problems affect his presidency? According to historian Dallek, tape recordings indicate despite all the medications, during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy comes across as clearheaded and effective.

     Ms. GOODWIN: There's no indication that this combination of ailments and medications impaired his presidency in any way. And you look back on it, and it only gives you a greater respect for him as a man.

    The front-page NYT article that broke the story about Dallek's disclosures (11-17-02):

    As president, he was famous for having a bad back, and since his death, biographers have pieced together details of other illnesses, including persistent digestive problems and Addison's disease, a life-threatening lack of adrenal function.

     But newly disclosed medical files covering the last eight years of Kennedy's life, including X-rays and prescription records, show that he took painkillers, antianxiety agents, stimulants and sleeping pills, as well as hormones to keep him alive, with extra doses in times of stress.

     At times the president took as many as eight medications a day, says the historian, Robert Dallek. A committee of three longtime Kennedy family associates, who for decades refused all requests to look at the records, granted Mr. Dallek's, in part because of his"tremendous reputation," said one of them, Theodore C. Sorensen, who was the president's special counsel.