Interview with Bob Dallek

Historians/History
tags: JFK, medical

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

HNN: The JFK Medical Files

It is Thursday morning. Five days since the Kennedy story landed him on the front page of the New York Times. And Bob Dallek sounds tired. Usually Bob talks in a loud booming voice. But so many people have been contacting him about the Kennedy disclosures that I find I have to strain to make out what he's saying. Everyone wants to talk to him. He's gotten calls from the media in Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. He's been on ABC's "Good Morning America" and "Charlie Rose." Bob Dallek, for the moment, is more in demand than the Kennedys themselves. The historian as public celebrity.

Radio shows across the country have been calling but Dallek's not doing radio. His publisher, Little Brown, tells him not to. Better to wait until the book comes out.

Earlier in the week, in the Times, columnist William Safire wondered why Little Brown had let the Kennedy medical secrets slip out now so far ahead of the book's publication. The book wasn't scheduled to appear until the fall (in time for the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination?). That the PR folks let this happen, he admonished, "shows how little some book publishers know about the news."

Actually, Dallek tells us, he had a good reason for getting out the news now. He had heard, he says, that at least one other historian may be given--or has already been given--access. "I didn't want anybody else to scoop me." Little Brown, he says, is "a little frustrated" and is now pushing the pub date up to the spring. But there are "lots of other new things in the book which they'll [be able] to trumpet."

Like what? Dallek doesn't say, but mentions in passing that he found a lot of interesting material about JFK's relationship with the military. The PT 109 hero didn't think highly of many the officials with whom he came in contact. You mean because of the Bay of Pigs? It was "more than the Bay of Pigs. He thought these guys were unreliable. ... They had cahones but no brains." Next spring, when the book appears, there will be a second article in the Atlantic Monthly. This one will deal with Vietnam and what Kennedy would have done there if he'd had a second term.

Dallek began his research on the book five years ago. About two years into the project he asked the three Kennedy people in charge of the medical records--Ted Sorensen, Burke Marshall, and Samuel Beer--if he could see them. Thirty-six years had passed since Kennedy's death. Other presidential libraries had opened their medical records. It was time for the Kennedy records to be opened.

The committee oddly enough did not know what was in the records and asked a Boston physician and family friend to review them. Dallek still doesn't know who it was. The doctor spent a year going through them little by little. At the end of a year he told the committee to open the records. There was nothing there that should be kept secret any longer.

Burke took home several of Dallek's books to read and was pleased to discover that Dallek isn't an ax-grinder. Sorensen agreed to sit down and talk. They got along. Dallek shrewdly declined to press Sorensen about his role in Kennedy's medical cover-up. "I didn't accost him," Dallek says. "He didn't manifest any regrets for lying or the cover-up. He thinks John Kennedy was a wonderful man."

Finally, they gave him the go-ahead. Dallek is quick to add, "I should emphasize there were no preconditions." And in fact the article in the Atlantic Monthly raises disturbing questions about Kennedy's truthfulness. One section is plainly labeled, "The Cover Up." Some critics have suggested that Dallek in the article published by the Atlantic uses the material to reinforce the old and fading image of Kennedy as a hero by emphasizing the president's courage in the face of physical pain and discomfort. Dallek offers no apologies. "My book is critical. I don't pull any punches."

The records were finally opened last spring at the Kennedy library. Present were an archivist, deputy archivist, Dallek and Dr. Jeffrey Kelman, whom Dallek called in for assistance. (Kelman's wife and Dallek's are old friends.) Kelman brought a portable view box to review Kennedy's x rays. For the next two days the pair poured over the records, Dallek taking thirty pages of handwritten notes. (He was forbidden to use a Xerox machine.)

Most of the records consisted of reports collected by White House physician Janet Travell. They were "quite detailed" and included day-by-day accounts. They did not include anything about Max Jacobson, the notorious New York doctor who prescribed uppers for Kennedy. Most astonishingly, says Dallek, the records appeared uncensored. "I thought I'd look at sanitized records. I didn't know they'd show me the actual [materials]."

Since the Times story's appearance Dallek says he's received dozens of emails. One in particular stands out. Dr. Peter Green, the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, suggested that Kennedy's symptoms seemed to mirror the symptoms of patients suffering from celiac's disease, a disorder particularly common in Ireland. Dallek says he is not preoccupied with the question of how Kennedy came to fall ill but will now include a paragraph about celiac's in the text of his book. (Dr. Green subsequently prepared an article about celiac's for HNN.)

The book is long. Dallek jokingly refers to it as a "doorstop." It is now in copy editing. By spring it will be on bookstore shelves: An Unfinished Life.

And how does Dallek feel about all the publicity? With the scandals of Ambrose and Goodwin in mind, he says, "a historian playing clean pool is getting a good reaction."