- John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 1917-63 by Robert Dallek
Allen Lane, 838 pp, £25.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 7139 9737 0
The majority of books about John F. Kennedy have been written either by toadying family retainers or by people bent on destroying the Camelot myth. The historian Robert Dallek is neither; he decided to enter the field, as he explains in his introduction, in part because documents had become available that threw new light on several aspects of Kennedy’s life, and in part because he thought the old ones should be given a fresh reading. More specifically, Dallek persuaded the caretakers of the flame to open sealed papers concerning Kennedy’s health problems, which were held at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Earlier books had revealed that Kennedy took a number of different medications, and we were vaguely aware at the time that he had a bad back, but Dallek’s new information about the extent of Kennedy’s health problems is astonishing. He does not treat the matter salaciously: how Kennedy dealt with his poor health becomes evidence of his ‘strength of character’ – though even more striking is the deception practised by him and his entourage. For better or for worse, someone known to have his several ailments, including Addison’s disease, an adrenal insufficiency which is fatal if untreated, would not be elected today. That he was often in agony, unable to lift his left leg to put on a sock, that he went up stairs sideways and was often on crutches when hidden from public view, that he was almost always sick, often from several things at once: none of this was included in the picture of Kennedy the public was given at the time, and it isn’t part of the picture his followers have held in their minds.
According to Dallek, Kennedy’s health didn’t interfere with his functioning as President, but sometimes it seems a very close call. Apart from anything else, the effect of mixing the many medications he was taking – some of them apparently taken inappropriately – was unknown then (it is hardly better known now). There is still a certain amount of speculation about his diseases and disabilities, but it sometimes seems a wonder that he could function at all. ‘Stoically refusing to let health concerns stop him,’ Dallek writes, ‘became a pattern that would allow Jack to pursue a political career . . . Between May 1955 and October 1957, while he was launching his Vice-Presidential and Presidential bids, he was secretly hospitalised nine times.’ Here is Dallek’s depiction of Kennedy’s health at an early point in his Presidency:
The bone loss and destruction in his lower back from steroids had been the source of back pain since at least 1940. And while the 1954 surgery that his Addison’s disease had made so risky had given him some limited relief, he continued to live with almost constant discomfort. As President, he sometimes took five hot showers a day to ease his pain . . . injections of painkillers and amphetamines that allowed Kennedy to stay off crutches, which he believed essential to project a picture of robust good health. All of this was kept secret.
During the first six months of his Presidency he also had ‘stomach/colon and prostate problems, high fevers, occasional dehydration, abscesses, sleeplessness and high cholesterol . . . Medical attention was a fixed part of his routine.’
Dallek writes that behind Kennedy’s jokes and insults about the indignities he endured at the hands of his doctors was his ‘fear that he was slated for an early demise, making him almost manic about packing as much pleasure into his life as he could in the possibly short time remaining to him’. The deaths of his brother and sister accentuated this. His older brother, Joe, died over the English Channel (British radar upset the delicate wiring on his explosive-laden plane: the American bases in the South of England had turned their radar off but had not asked their allies to do the same). And he lost his favourite sister, Kathleen, a fellow rebel who defied her Catholic parents in marrying the Protestant heir to the Duke of Devonshire, in a plane crash in the Rhône Valley.
A sickly, scrawny boy in a large family that worshipped physical beauty and athletic prowess, Jack Kennedy nevertheless grew up spoiled and overprivileged. Though he lived through the Great Depression, he seems only to have found out about it when he went to Harvard. Perhaps this cloistered existence is what dulled him in his Presidency to African-American needs and discontents – though this was not the case with his younger brother Bobby. At an early age, he became accustomed to his father pulling strings for him. The Kennedys made their own rules. The father, a prodigious philanderer, set an example for his sons.
Kennedy’s health problems began before his third birthday, when he came down with ‘a virulent case of scarlet fever’ – then a life-threatening disease. His father used his influence to get him treated at the best Boston medical centre; and from then on, Dallek writes, ‘not a year passed without one physical affliction or another.’ Many of his early maladies went undiagnosed. He was unable to gain weight. (Later, he was treated for this with injections of testosterone, which, Dallek speculates, might have enhanced his already healthy libido.) As a teenager he was so skinny that his classmates called him ‘Rat Face’. His older brother, Joe, was not only very handsome but a superb athlete: Jack told a friend that he thought he was just as smart and just as athletic but he doubted that the family would ever think so. He always felt that in his father’s eyes he was only filling in for his older brother.
When Jack began his political career the Kennedys were presented as a vigorous athletic family – the Hyannisport games of touch football became the family emblem. In fact, the keynote of his Presidential campaign was ‘vigah’, as Jack pronounced it. Ironically, it was the cortisone shots he “was given for his Addison’s that filled out his cheeks and turned him into a handsome man. Dallek tells us that by the time he was 17, Kennedy had developed an ability to charm women. He concluded that they couldn’t have been attracted to him because of his looks. ‘It must be my personality.’
Dallek postulates that Jack’s predatory sexual behaviour had several causes: competition with his brother Joe; awareness of his father’s infidelities and sympathy for him in his quarrels with Rose Kennedy, Jack’s mother; stories about his Fitzgerald grandfather; his mother’s coldness (this gets close to psychobabble); and the general appeal of taking risks. ‘Like the member of a privileged aristocracy, of a libertine class’, Dallek writes, he considered himself ‘entitled to seek out and obtain what he craved, instantly’. Kennedy said that David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne, which depicted young aristocrats having a good time while performing heroic feats in the service of Queen and country, was one of his favourite books.
When Kennedy was about to run for the Senate, according to Dallek, he ‘reluctantly’ decided that it would be good politics to get married. He thought it would help his campaign if he seemed like a family man. Dallek also believes that he actually fell in love with Jackie, which doesn’t seem to have happened with anyone else, and offers the arresting hypothesis that Jack and Jackie were surprisingly alike. Though Jackie came from a more established aristocratic Catholic family, both had cold mothers and absentee fathers; both were quite detached. Lem Billings, a friend of Jack’s, said later: ‘I think he understood that the two of them were alike. They had both taken circumstances that weren’t the best in the world when they were younger and learned to make themselves up as they went along . . . They were both actors and I think they appreciated each other’s performances . . . Jackie interested him, which was not true of many women.’ But Jack’s devotion, Dallek writes, ‘didn’t last long’; Jackie had to struggle with his independent ways and his ‘thinly disguised promiscuity’. ‘After the first year they were together,’ another of Jack’s friends told Dallek, ‘Jackie was wandering around looking like the survivor of an airplane crash.’
It was obvious that her husband’s infidelity made Jackie angry and unhappy, Dallek reports, ‘but she chose to live with it.’ Apparently, she never confronted him with what she knew, and even made a point of telling her husband’s staff when she’d be away and when she’d be back so that his philandering could be arranged. During his Presidency, Kennedy took at least two large and by now well-known chances: his affairs with Judith Campbell Exner, who was also the girlfriend of the mobster Sam Giancana, and with Ellen Rometsch, who was believed to be an East German spy and had to be spirited out of the country. His recklessness was far greater than Bill Clinton’s (Dallek found that Kennedy, too, had an affair with a White House intern), but he had the good fortune not to be found out – Bobby had some delicate negotiations with J. Edgar Hoover.
Kennedy essentially didn’t care much about women; he enjoyed the chase more than the conquest, and, according to other accounts, wasn’t much concerned with giving a woman sexual satisfaction. His coldness in sexual affairs reflected his general attitude: the only people he was really close to were his own family, and during his Presidency, Dallek argues, his only real friend was his brother Bobby. Others socialised with Jack and Jackie, and liked to think of themselves as the Kennedys’ friends, but Jack kept everyone except Bobby at some distance. He didn’t take naturally to campaigning, Dallek tells us, because ‘false camaraderie was alien to his nature. He was a charmer but not an easygoing, affable character.’
Kennedy was an undistinguished senator. He chose to concentrate on foreign policy because, according to Dallek, he thought it would be better for his career. It was fear of alienating one faction or another that caused him to avoid domestic issues. In the Senate – as in his Presidency – Kennedy tended to keep clear of great moral questions. He managed to miss the Senate vote condemning McCarthy, the only Democrat not to vote (it was Lyndon Johnson who set McCarthy up for his downfall). McCarthy had dated one of Kennedy’s sisters, and, by arrangement with his father, Robert Kennedy had worked for him. Arthur Schlesinger, who later worked in the Kennedy White House, said that Kennedy didn’t want to alienate Massachusetts Catholics, but Dallek calls his excuses ‘weak’, ‘selfish’ and ‘legalistic’ and describes his failure to vote as ‘an enduring political problem’.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Kennedy soon afterwards wrote his famous bestseller Profiles in Courage, which recounted the stories of eight senators who had risked their careers by taking unpopular stands. No one any longer believes that Kennedy actually wrote the book, given that he was either busy or ill much of the time, but Dallek concludes, on the evidence of materials at the Kennedy Library, that the work was the product of a committee of which Kennedy was a member.
His reluctance to take a stand meant that when he ran for President, he was widely considered a mediocre senator of little achievement. Liberals in particular were cool about his candidacy. ‘Most liberals,’ Dallek writes, ‘subscribed to the view of Kennedy as an ambitious but superficial playboy with little more to commend him than his good looks and charm. On none of the issues most important to them – McCarthyism, Civil Rights and labour unions – had Jack been an outspoken advocate.’ Liberal hearts were with Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson.
The process may have been tipped towards the wealthiest candidate (or the candidate with the wealthiest father), but even so I find myself longing for a system closer to the one that chose Kennedy than the one we have now. Kennedy had to prove his viability by winning a handful of primaries and then, with the ‘encouragement’ of his father Joe, party leaders decided that he would be the best nominee. The insane, grinding, devouring process America has today – in 2004 there will be 38 primaries – has often produced an unlikely candidate, sometimes even a preposterous one. The party leaders now have virtually no say in selecting a candidate on the basis of who might win the general election.
Even though Kennedy barely won the Presidency – Dallek argues persuasively that he didn’t steal it – he created a new style of politician. I think Dallek falls short in capturing what Kennedy did to politics. For all his cynicism, detachment and cold-bloodedness, Kennedy projected an idealism that inspired many people to follow his example and go into politics. Despite all the grubby stuff, he gave politics the appearance of a noble endeavour. Similarly, Dallek fails to get across the sheer excitement Kennedy engendered. (That we were misled in seeing a vigorous young man is irrelevant.) There was a headiness about it all, a sense that to serve in the government was to make a contribution. Thousands of young lawyers and others flocked to Washington to be part of the New Frontier; they joined the Peace Corps or the Agency for International Development. In those days helping underdeveloped nations was a glamorous thing to do: now the Agency has all but disappeared. With the advent of Richard Nixon, who sought the segregationist vote by emulating some of George Wallace’s worst traits, all this changed. Wallace had campaigned against ‘pointy-headed bureaucrats’ and Nixon derided government workers, though they kept the Government going during Watergate.
The lure these days is the lucrativeness of having served: of knowing the right people and how to get a client in the door, and how to receive favourable treatment for oneself. The ranks of lobbyists in Washington – many of them former members of Congress or high officials of one or other administration – are now so bloated they have filled many city blocks beyond the symbolic K Street, and caused a boom in office building. Some people pick their government roles, just as some members of Congress pick the committees they want to serve on, with an eye to how much money these positions will bring in later. Washington is still a lovely city but it has become polluted by the money culture. One finds perfectly nice people helping exploitative drug companies, or trying to ensure the Government doesn’t make cars more fuel-efficient. Idealism in Washington is dead.
Kennedy’s Presidency can be seen as a series of crises, some more serious than was apparent at the time. His first disaster was the ill-considered Bay of Pigs venture. The CIA, run by an Eisenhower holdover (Kennedy was trying to buy bipartisan support), recommended an invasion of Cuba, and – a chilling foretaste of recent events – advised that such an invasion would set off an internal revolt against Castro with Cubans rallying to the American side. Interestingly, the CIA also overestimated the role that exiles could play in transforming the island’s government. With his advisers divided, and fearful that inaction on his part would bring political attacks, Kennedy finally sanctioned the invasion. Dallek points out that Jack and Bobby were great fans of Ian Fleming’s novels, and thought the key CIA operative pushing for action in Cuba a James Bond-like figure. This fondness for swashbuckling characters was to bring the Kennedys to grief more than once.
As Dallek tells it, the debacle upset Kennedy far more than was known at the time. Jackie told Kennedy’s mother that Jack ‘was so upset’ he ‘had practically been in tears’. He made no effort to hide his anguish from his aides and in meetings would talk to himself and, according to Dallek, ‘interrupt conversations with the non sequitur “How could I have been so stupid?”’ Privately, he also blamed the experts he had listened to and vowed never to listen to them again – some were dismissed – but publicly he blamed only himself, for which he gained substantial credit. Since then, a Presidential admission of error, however much it helped Kennedy, has been a rare thing.
Had Kennedy ignored the advice of the experts, he might have avoided the Vietnam imbroglio. Dallek suggests that he pushed on in South-East Asia after bullying by Khrushchev in Vienna early in his Administration made him determined to show that he would stand up to Communism. As his commitment to Vietnam deepened, he was once again given conflicting advice, and – another thing eerily echoed in the present time – excessively optimistic reports from the field. Napoleon’s march to Moscow, the onset of the First World War, Bush in Iraq: there is no end to wishful thinking.
Kennedy’s response to the Civil Rights movement was ‘largely motivated by self-serving political considerations’, Dallek writes. Unlike his primary opponent Hubert Humphrey, a hero of the Civil Rights movement, or his running mate, Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy didn’t really care about Civil Rights. In his campaign he tried to please both sides: Civil Rights advocates and Southerners, just as he did when he tried to get a lame Civil Rights bill through the Congress fairly late in his Presidency. The clear impression at the time was that he wasn’t trying very hard. He attempted to discourage the 1963 March on Washington but, when that failed, worked to ensure its success. He suggested to Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers that his members participate in the march so that it wouldn’t be comprised only of blacks, and Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department gave it protection. Kennedy felt beset by violence in the South as blacks sought to integrate universities and lunch counters – though he skilfully played off certain Southern leaders’ intransigence. Why Robert Kennedy (and their younger brother, Ted) turned out to be more sympathetic to Civil Rights than their elder brother is a mystery. Dallek splits the credit for getting a bill through Congress in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination between Kennedy and Johnson but it would have gone nowhere without Johnson’s legislative skills. Calling on Kennedy’s memory, Johnson got not only the Civil Rights Bill through but also Kennedy’s stalled tax cut – in the face of opponents who argued that the US economy was healthy and that tax cuts would further increase the deficit. (Eventually, Johnson overreached himself, but he knew that Congress would turn on him at some point and simply squeezed what he could from it until that happened.)
Rereading the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, competently handled by Dallek, an American weeps for the subtlety, caution and ability to get inside the enemy’s head that Kennedy exhibited. He ignored the advice of his more bellicose advisers. The egregious Air Force chief of staff General Curtis LeMay, for example, argued that a blockade, which Kennedy was considering and ultimately implemented, would be as bad as appeasement had been in 1938. Both Dean Rusk, his Secretary of State and McGeorge Bundy, his National Security Adviser, urged an air strike on the missile sites in Cuba, while the joint chiefs of staff urged a full-scale invasion. It was Robert Kennedy who told a meeting of the President’s chief advisers that air strikes would probably ‘kill an awful lot of people’; Dallek suggests that ‘it seems possible, even likely’, that Robert Kennedy was reflecting his older brother’s views: ‘Bobby was not given to freelancing . . . In this early stage of the discussions about what to do, it would have made Kennedy seem weak to shy away openly from air raids for fear they might not work well or would claim some innocent victims.’ Dallek clearly shows the pressure that Kennedy was under: ‘Indeed, no President or Administration had confronted so much danger to the national survival since Roosevelt had led the country through the Second World War,’ but he doesn’t convey the fear we all felt once we’d been made aware of the crisis.
Kennedy carefully nurtured his European alliances, but was particularly tried by de Gaulle’s insistence on a separate nuclear force and by Germany’s inclination to side with France on the matter. Rather than retreat in a snit, he flew to Germany – he pointedly avoided a trip to Paris – and it was on that trip that he gave his famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech. While many Americans were proud of the strong reception the speech got, the reaction to it was so intense that it alarmed Kennedy’s entourage and caused Konrad Adenauer to wonder whether the public might not allow another Hitler to return to power.
A glamorous legend and a great President aren’t necessarily the same thing, and at the end of his book Dallek wrestles with how to rate Kennedy’s Presidency – ‘a patchwork of stumbles and significant achievements’ is his conclusion, though that misses the sense of excitement his Presidency represented for those of us who lived through it.