Elizabeth Drew

  • 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.

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