With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

HNN: The JFK Medical Files

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 - The first thorough examination of President John F. Kennedy's medical records, conducted by an independent presidential historian with a medical consultant, has found that Kennedy suffered from more ailments, was in far greater pain and was taking many more medications than the public knew at the time or biographers have since described. -- New York Times, November 17, 2002

About presidents' medical conditions there is a striking dichotomy. It is the one subject concerning a president's private life about which people publicly acknowledge they have a deep interest (unlike sex, about which the public craves knowledge but professes insouciance). And yet a president's medical history is likely to be the one subject presidents feel entitled to conceal and obfuscate. Grover Cleveland, confronted with an allegation that he had dallied as a bachelor with a young lady and impregnated her, quickly issued a public confession. But a few years later, when forced to undergo an operation to remove a cancerous part of his upper jaw, Cleveland concealed his illness and sent forth officials to lie about it. The sex act had been performed while Cleveland was a private citizen. The cancer operation took place while he was president of the United States. About the sex he was eager to tell the truth, though it truly was no one's business but his and the lady's. About the cancer operation he was eager to lie, though it obviously was an event of great public import. Not until long after he had died was the public informed of his deception. (It is worth noting that some historians, Henry Graff among them, doubt that Cleveland actually fathered the child that was said to have resulted from his affair. The child may indeed have been fathered by Cleveland's business associate, a married man whom Cleveland was trying to protect.)

About John Kennedy's attempts to conceal his medical history there is a second dichotomy. About this subject he lied and lied and lied. And yet as is also quite evident, about this subject the lie may be evidence not of his character defects but of his character strengths. It takes a man of great character to endure the kind of physical pain JFK endured without a hint of self-pity. You might also call it -- forgive me -- a profile in courage.

A third dichotomy is readily apparent. JFK's reputation declined precipitously in elite circles beginning in the 1970s when it was revealed that he had been notoriously unfaithful to his wife, compulsively engaging in sexual relations with the paramour of a known mobster and an assorted collection of other women, including two who went by the nicknames Fiddle and Faddle. (The public never gave up on Camelot; Kennedy remains one of Americans' top three presidents, even if his sex life came to draw unflattering titters.) Now as a result of the medical revelations made by Robert Dallek the Kennedy reputation may revive. Like one of those old plays from the 1960s that are periodically restaged on Broadway,"Camelot!" may once again draw crowds.

In both the sex and the medical revelations a knife was wielded to whittle at the walls surrounding his private life, a knife we reach for on a regular basis in a media culture given to sensationalized disclosures. But the outcome is vastly different, the sex revelations damaging Kennedy's image, the medical revelations enhancing it.

And yet 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."

While the Kennedy reputation may grow, Sorenson's ironically may decline. For years Sorenson has attempted to polish up the Kennedy legacy by denying the obvious, notably, his own authorship of Profiles in Courage, for which Kennedy walked away with the Pulitzer Prize-- a "writer's prize" as Garry Wills once pointedly observed. Sorenson's silence, like Lady Di's butler's, redounded to his credit. Now, just as Di's butler finally broke his code of silence so has Sorenson, admitting that for years he had tried to "refute, rebut rumors" that he now acknowledges were true. Unlike the butler, Sorenson remains loyal to his liege. That speaks well of him; disloyalty in a loyalist is terribly difficult to forgive. But his parting shot at the people who previously asked to see Kennedy's records but were denied access is regrettable and distasteful. A long list of scholars including Wisconsin historian Thomas Reeves have tried to gain access to the medical archives, without success. Lumping all seekers of the records into an unsavory heap of Toms, Dicks and Harrys reflects badly not on the scholars but on Sorenson. Could Reeves not be trusted to put the medical revelations in context? Of course, he could. What he could not be counted on presumably was putting them in a positive light.

The timing of this latest revelation is uncanny, though clearly uncontrived. It has taken place at the very moment the media have announced the end of the Kennedy dynasty with the double electoral defeats of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Mark Shriver. But who knows? Perhaps a new Kennedy will once again feel compelled to take to the public stage to demonstrate that Camelot yet lives.

Whatever course future Kennedys take, at least John F. Kennedy's legacy now seems a little safer than it has for a long time. Yes, Kennedy will remain the subject of gossip. How can he not? But once again the Kennedy gossips will have something heroic to talk about.