Interviews November 2002

Pulling Back the Curtain

Presidential historian Robert Dallek, the author of "The Medical Ordeals of JFK" (December Atlantic), discusses new revelations about President Kennedy's serious health problems and his efforts to keep them hidden

Though America's thirty-fifth President served fewer than three years in office, his hold on the American popular imagination is more powerful than perhaps any other's. John F. Kennedy remains an iconic figure—emblematic of a golden era of hopefulness that was ushered in when he ascended to the presidency in 1961 and that died with him when he was assassinated. America's visceral, wistful response to Kennedy's brief presidency seems to have at least as much to do with images and impressions as it does with concrete facts about what he accomplished in office. To many Americans, he was elegance and style personified. He was the dashing young politician with the glamorous wife and beautiful children; the war hero who had saved men's lives in the South Pacific and received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal; the well-bred graduate of an exclusive New England prep school and Harvard college; and the skilled athlete who played tennis, sailed, engaged in vigorous games of touch football, and roughhoused picturesquely with his children around the White House.

Things appeared to come naturally for him. And during his presidency his aura of ease and grace seemed to shape the mood of the country as a whole. Ironically, however, given that his appealing impression of utter well-being may have been one of his most important characteristics as President, new evidence suggests that that impression was a false one. Indeed, Kennedy's private experience was almost completely at odds with the public image of ease and grace that he projected.

Earlier this year, in the course of conducting research for a book on Kennedy, the historian Robert Dallek gained permission from a committee in charge of Kennedy's White House records to read his previously unopened medical files. What he discovered there surprised him. It had long been public knowledge that Kennedy suffered from back trouble and Addison's disease (a malfunctioning of the adrenal glands), but the extent of his suffering, and of his physical limitations, had been a well-guarded secret.

In "The Medical Ordeals of JFK," (December Atlantic), Dallek describes the litany of health problems that plagued Kennedy throughout his life, and the complex medication and treatment regimens that became a regular part of his daily experience. During just the first six months of his term, Dallek writes,

Kennedy suffered stomach, colon, and prostate problems, high fevers, occasional dehydration, abscesses, sleeplessness, and high cholesterol, in addition to his ongoing back and adrenal ailments. His physicians administered large doses of so many drugs that Travell kept a "Medicine Administration Record," cataloguing injected and ingested corticosteroids for his adrenal insufficiency; procaine shots and ultrasound treatments and hot packs for his back; Lomotil, Metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss; penicillin and other antibiotics for his urinary-tract infections and an abscess; and Tuinal to help him sleep.

Because his spine had become so weakened by osteoporosis (most likely a side effect of the steroids he had been taking from a young age for his intestinal problems), his range of motion was severely restricted, and the pain was extreme. At times, Dallek reports, he had to resort to crutches or other mobility aids.

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.

It could be argued, Dallek concedes, that Kennedy's failure to be forthright about his health status represents a moral failing—an indication that he placed greater importance on his own personal ambition than on the welfare of the American people. But that same deceptiveness, Dallek suggests, can also be viewed in another light.

The silence regarding his health [can be viewed] as the quiet stoicism of a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain and distress and performing his presidential (and pre-presidential) duties largely undeterred by his physical suffering. Does this not also speak to his character, but in a more complex way?

What Kennedy gave the American people was an image of perfection that buoyed them up and inspired them. It took enormous effort to maintain that façade, but by reserving his suffering for himself alone, he was able to create for America the Camelot that it seemed to want and need.

Robert Dallek is a history professor at Boston University and the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945, which won the Bancroft Prize; Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960; Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents; and Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. He is currently at work on An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, which will be published next fall by Little, Brown.

I spoke with him recently by telephone.

—Sage Stossel

You write that a lot of the information you present in the article just became available this year when a committee of Kennedy Administration friends and associates agreed to open up a collection of papers. Why were those files under the control of that particular group, and why did they decide to open the papers now?

The Kennedy Library is the only presidential library in the country that has donor committees, which means that the papers are controlled by committees who determine whether there should be access to them. The papers about Kennedy's medical history had been in the library for a number of years, and a number of earlier biographers had tried to gain access but were summarily turned down.

I think the reason that access was given now is because of what always happens with presidential material—the passage of time. After all, it's thirty-nine years this month since Kennedy died, and more than forty years since he came to the White House.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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