Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

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.





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emily - 4/28/2003

I am doing a reasearch project for my phyisio class on the celiac disease. My mom has this disease as well. Is there a place to find the history of this disease and why they test for it only in italy and not any where else

Jeff Kelly - 12/25/2002

As an untreated Celiac for many years who suffered in great pain without appropriate medical care in ANY sense of that term, I only have ONE reaction to such comments:"BUNK!"

Jeff Kelly - 12/25/2002

Kennedy has the same disease I have which afflicts the Irish in larger proportions than any other ethnic group;it is called Celiac Disease and what happens therein is that the ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients becomes badly impaired from the immune reaction to the common grain protein called gluten. It results in very real disability from malabsorption syndromes and degeneration of bone and normal system function as well as pain included therein. I know because I suffered the last 35+ years from it without an accurate diagnosis and once I cut gluten from my diet, I felt like a human being again(yes I have a DEFINITIVE diagnosis from genetic and stool antibody testing as well as the healing on the die). We are reasonably sure of two things: 1)JFK's doctors never advised him on Celiac disease nor what to do for it in terms of diet and 2)The only thing Kennedy himself was certain about was that he did not have Addison's disease(which would have killed him sooner than he did die)--which doctors REDEFINED as including a MILD adrenal insufficiency which COULD have easily resulted from the autoimmune reaction in Celiac disease(but neither I nor anyone knows this for CERTAIN), thus placing a definite element of honesty within this all in the context of ignorance of his own medical condition which I have good reason to believe was genuine.
As to the issue of testosterone, this is ONE of the several important horomonal deficiencies COMMONLY found in CELIAC DISEASE. Doctors TODAY tend not to pick up on this(my theory is that most of them WANT to be ignorant of Celiac Disease for various practical reasons and reasons of medical school deficiencies). Testerone was then an APPROPRIATE treatment in the context of continuing to consume GLUTEN. The "RUB" to this is that had there been no overriding IGNORANCE of the Celiac Disease, there would THEN have been no need to take testosterone because the MALABSORPTION would have been THUS alleviated. So the two choices Mr. Wetteing posts are a false dilemma at least in terms of the FOCUS on the ACCURATE medical diagnosis--but beyond THAT, YES, JFK had a diminishing sex drive as a result of these nutrient deficiencies which as I said before, could have been avoided (but NOT EASILY) on a gluten free diet with his Celiac. (NB:MY concluion about JFK's CELIAC Disease is SUPPORTED by Peter Green MD a Gastroenterologist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in NYC and an expert in Celiac Disease--one of the few experts on this disease within the medical profession).

E.C.Eckman - 12/2/2002

Yes, I agree the questions regarding your Arbusto posit should be thoroughly investigated and truthfully presented to the public.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander!

Tom Kellum - 11/21/2002

President Kennedy has been gone for a very long time. But, we have a President today who also has a long, curious record of having taken various "medications." One wonders when the mainstream press will bring to the public's attention more information about the extent and scope of his use of legal and illegal drugs.

Does the public have the right to know if a President's drug usage is the real reason why he failed to take a military medical examination? The mainstream press has yet to report on the factual basis for why young Mr. Bush was grounded from piloting military aircraft. Likewise; no stories (to my knowledge) have appeared in the mainstream press about his inexplicable community service in a poor neighborhood in Houston. Is there a tie-in between the "medications" he had been taking, and that community service?

Then there's demon rum. The mainstream press has offered only the White House line to explain the rather nasty fall and injuries the President sustained during an unpleasant encounter with a pretzel on Super Bowl Sunday. Is it possible that he may have lost his balance due to something other than the pretzel? Was alcohol a factor in the incident?

If the late JFK is fair game, then surely GWB is.

Fred Wettering - 11/21/2002

In addition to what Professor Dallek recently revealed, there were numerous earlier allegations that his personal physician (Jacobsen?) was wont to prescibe amphetamines, and other allegations that during his many sexual romps he would use sodium nitrate "poppers." One wonders if the testosterone shots were for Addison's Disease or to revive a naturally diminishing sex drive, which obviously was so important to JFK.

Frank Lee - 11/20/2002

Presidents covering up their faults, is "news" ?
What a joke.

Tom Kellum - 11/20/2002

Mr. Boucher: Does that same author you were so kind to cite, also hold to the view that GWB's frail mental condition due to years of alcohol and drug abuse mean that HIS entire campaign to get elected was manipulative and dishonest? If I'm not mistaken, that's the author who holds the view that Mr. Bush's failure to act immediately, upon being told that the country was under attack, is due to his frail, or permanently-impaired (pickled) cranial region. Or, else possibly because of the so-called LIHOP theory.

Peter Boucher - 11/20/2002

The author of http://www.nationalreview.com/frum/diary112002.asp#001036 writes that Kennedy's frail health means that his entire campaign to get elected was manipulative and dishonest.

Hugh Powers - 11/20/2002

Seems to me that if the public has the right to know about the various drug therapies prescribed to President Kennedy, then we should also have the right to know about those of President Bush.

As a candidate for Governor of Texas, and later for president, Mr. Bush gave cryptic, vague, non-responsive answers to questions regarding his past use of illegal drugs. In addition, shouldn't the public have the right to know, once and for all, the truth about the findings in his National Guard medical examination. There have been persistent reports that he was grounded from ever piloting a military aircraft again because of his use of illegal narcotics (cocaine, especially).

Finally, shouldn't the public be made aware of any findings of mental or physical impairment as a result of his alcoholism? Could there be something more that would explain his awful injuries which resulted allegedly from having a difficult time dealing with a pretzel?

Has the time come for the mainstream press to change its policy of not showing interest in the aspects of a President's medical condition that are not voluntarily provided by him or his spokespersons?

Tom Kellum - 11/19/2002

Did you have a point you wanted to make? If so, what is it? Maybe you're confusing another paragron of right-wing virtue, Mr. J. Danforth Quale, one of whose drug suppliers was put into solitary confinement after trying to get the so-called liberal press interested in his allegations about Mr. Quale.

Surely, you aren't being serious when you try to compare the barely literate Bunnypants to the obvious mental superiority of Al Gore. In reality, the capacity of right-wing partisans to remain in denial about the limitations of Mr. Bush seems limitless. Maybe you feel safer knowing the White House is now occupied (no pun intended) by a deserter from the military, but I don't.

If you are unable or unwilling to connect the dots which lead inexorably to the conclusion that GWB was a heavy drinker and heavy drug user/abuser...including cocaine, then you probably wouldn't be able to come to grips with it even if your sources of "news" and information lost their heads and started informing their readers about more than just right-wing propaganda.

Bill Heuisler - 11/19/2002

Mr. Kellum,
In light of the seriousness of abuse surrounding Agnes Goxha Bojaxhiu, it ISN'T surprising that the mainstream press would do everything in its considerable power and influence to keep the public "comfortably numb" about this important story and the decay of such a place and the degeneration of so many.
She does not deny it. She must be wicked. There's more.
The first Governor called it "the most wicked place in the universe." One of his successors, Sir George Trevelyan, wrote: "Find, if you can a more uninviting spot. The place is so bad by nature that human efforts could do little to make it worse, but little has been done faithfully and assiduously." Agnes has not denied doing little faithfully.
An oftquoted portrayal, called it "the city of dreadful night-a city of unspeakable poverty, of famine, riot and disease where the cholera, the cyclone, the crow come and go, by the sewage rendered fetid, by the sewer made impure."
There is documented evidence Agnes Bojaxhiu was responsible for these conditions...and perhaps worse, much worse. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with some of the documented evidence, Mr. Kellum. Some of that evidence includes the fact that Agnes refused to take her annual medical exam before leaving her home to travel. Had she taken this exam, hashish and cocaine would very likely have been identified. Ms. Bojaxhiu has not denied using cocaine. She has not denied using hashish. Course, she hasn't denied that the reason for her inexplicable "community service" in a poor neighborhood was related to drugs, either.
In the light of so much evidence about Ms. Bojaxhiu's questionable character and abuse of illegal drugs, it IS surprising that garden variety apologists would be so quick to urge her beatification. Also, maybe "Herodotus" isn't Herodotus, but he never denied meeting Agnes Goxha Bojaxhiu and he never mentioned her in his history of Lydia. Guilt, you think? Perhaps they were a May-December thing. A pox on them both.
Thank God you're not a prosecutor.
Bill Heuisler

Steven Smith - 11/19/2002

Isn't it interesting that you should mention the strong and plausible rumors of George W. Bush's drug use and not the allegations of actual identified people who came forward and reported regularly doing drugs with Al Gore or Bill Clinton?

When one of Al Gore's friends (his dealer) is willing to say on the record that Gore did drugs almost daily and specify just what drugs he was doing (Gore liked to smoke sticks of one drug dipped in another as I recall the allegations)--yet it gets far less coverage than Bush's probable use, which is unsourced--that would seem to be a problem. Gore's very poor performance at Harvard and Vanderbilt (how do you fail in Divinity School at Vanderbilt?) tends to support the reports of his friend that Gore was high almost every day in his Vanderbilt days. Even some of Bush's supporters are surprised that Bush did better than Gore in school; this might be the reason.

As to Clinton's drug use, not only are there witnesses who claim to have seen him use cocaine at parties in Arkansas, but the FBI has Clinton's brother on surveillance audiotape (used in the brother's drug conviction) discussing Bill's heavy cocaine habit.

That's the problem. Given that these guys are all products of the 60s and 70s at elite Eastern schools and all were either party animals or desperate to be liked by peers, what do you expect but fairly heavy drug use?

It wouldn't surprise me in 2004 if someone comes forward to accuse Bush of cocaine use, which gets well covered, while the mainstream press remains silent about the already on the record claims of drug use by Gore.

Tom Kellum - 11/19/2002

In light of the seriousness of the cocaine use (and abuse) by Mr. Bush, it ISN'T surprising that the mainstream press ("Stenographers To Power")would do everything in its considerable power and influence to keep the public "comfortably numb" about this important story.

Perhaps "Herodutus" is unfamiliar with some of the documented evidence. Some of that evidence includes the fact that GWB was grounded from flying because he refused to take his annual medical exam. In addition to alcohol and marijuana, cocaine would very likely have been identified therein. Mr. Bush has not denied using cocaine. Course, he hasn't denied that the reason for his inexplicable "community service" in a poor neighborhood in Houston was related to drugs, either. And, no, this was not during the missing year when he did not show up for military duty, as ordered.

In the light of so much evidence about Mr. Bush's questionable character and abuse of illegal drugs, it IS surprising that garden variety right wingers would be so quick to try to deny the obvious. Maybe "Herodotus" isn't Herodotus. H&Knowlton?

Herodotus - 11/19/2002

The public has been told about much of this. Check out Runner's World from over the summer for a telling piece about Bush jr.'s turn to running as part of his abstinance from alcohol.

As for the cocaine use claim...it's about as plausible as the claim that the moon landings were faked. It's surprising that anyone still circulates what has been clearly identified as an early election whispering campaign tactic that fell flat.

P. McCarthy - 11/19/2002

I can't help but wonder if a former president with JFK's medical and drug history had been a Republican, would his "character" be viewed in such a favorable light or would he (more likely) be posthumously convicted of being a drug addict as well as deceitfully criminal. Is there any doubt that he would be condemned as Clinton should be for never releasing his own medical records, probably for far more nefarious reasons than JF?
As a nation, we are foutunate that no terrible harm came to the country as a result of Kennedy's ill-health. But those who kept his medical secrets put the nation at risk. It is time for academic historians to put their ideology aside and assess such revelations honestly.

Tom Kellum - 11/18/2002

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Dr. Jacobson's injections "could have altered JFK's behavior" as one in which reasonable people might reach different conclusions...some perhaps even saying that if the injections did contain amphetamines, their effect may have been positive (after all, soldiers, pilots, and even long distance truck drivers have/do use them); Mr. Nash does raise a good question regarding the voting public's right to know about a presidential candidate's "health problems."

The question I have in mind is this: "Should the public have been told more about the allegations concerning the possible effects of years of heavy usage of alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and any other drugs on then-presidential candidate George W. Bush?"

Phil Nash - 11/18/2002

I thank Rick Shenkman for his fine piece. Unfortunately, the manipulation he describes is working. Did anyone catch the network news coverage of this? JFK's use of "stimulants" was only mentioned in passing. Nothing, not even along the lines of M. Beschloss's CRISIS YEARS, about Max "Dr. Feel Good" Jacobson's injections, including those at the time of 1961 Vienna Summit, which contained amphetamines and could have altered JFK's behavior. And nothing engaging the more important point--that candidates have an obligation to reveal their complete medical records before they even run for President. Instead, what we get are "revelations" that JFK--whaddya know!--was even more courageous than we thought! His health problems should have formed part of the basis on which the voters judged him, and all the lies about those problems were shameful.