President Kennedy

Each day this week the History Channel classroom was devoted to the Kennedys, a total of five remarkable programs. The first programs devoted much attention to President Kennedy's health problems, which, like those of Roosevelt, were largely kept from the public. Since Herbert Abrams of Stanford University was a member of a commission to study such problems, I asked if he had any comments. He answers: "Unfortunately, I didn't catch the two-part program on the Kennedy presidency. Sooner or later, we may have to install cable.

Robert Dallek, the historian at Boston University, published a study of Kennedy a year or so back in which health was a considerable issue. He had obtained access to Kennedy's health records at the Kennedy Library, worked it over with a physician colleague, and published a segment of it in the Atlantic. The media responded with the kind of excess which occasionally accompanies the "sensational" in the modern period (as in centuries past as well.)

But there was little new in it. Anyone interested in Kennedy's health was aware of his numerous and discomforting encounters with illness. His Addison's disease (adrenal insufficiency,) vigorously denied by Bobby Kennedy, surfaced in his contest with Johnson for the Presidential nomination, and later in the election. He was on steroids from the early fifties on and certainly through every day of his presidency. (Notably, the famously inadequate autopsy report said nothing about his adrenal glands.)

His back problems were with him from the early forties on; his first surgery took place at the Lahey Clinic in Boston in 1944, and failed miserably. Ten years later, he was hospitalized at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and underwent lumbar spinal fusion, without significant relief of his chronic and frequently intractable pain.. (The operation was later described in detail in the Archives of Surgery because of the complexity of surgery in the presence of Addison's disease.) But his life was a catalogue of illnesses, including a host of viral infections, malaria, hepatitis, gastro-intestinal problems, asthma, etc. etc. He was also a patient of Dr. Max (Feel-good) Jacobson, whose infections usually combined vitamins with enough amphetamine to pick up anyone's mood, and whose patients, according to the New York Times in the early seventies, included a fine sampling of the worlds of art and politics. Surely your documentary on the History Channel must have covered in dramatic form the effect of the "pounding" by the hulls of the patrol boat on his back, which apparently led him to relinquish his command in 1943".

RH: The unvarnished series on the Kennedys ended before the Skakel scandal which shook Greenwich, Connecticut. At the end of the five programs there was brief praise for the good work done by the present, inconspicuous Kennedys, but I was left with the feeling that the whole story of the Kennedys was largely a public relations operation. If the information given had been public knowledge, Kennedy would probably not have been elected president. The whole series was like a Shakespearean tragedy. The patriarch, Joseph, an unattractive character, used his wealth of dubious origin to push his sons toward the presidency, but one after another they were killed, leaving only Senator Edward Kennedy, who made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency. The patriarch died a sick, disappointed man.

Randy Black comments on the History Channel documentaries on the Kennedy family: "After the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, there was a great debate as to the potential Presidential candidacy of the surviving brother, Ted. It was not a matter of “if” but when he would run. Ted Kennedy’s personal contribution to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969 ended any real run for President. But I recall that there was a consensus that Ted Kennedy was simply not up to the task intellectually. Over the years, Ted Kennedy has pretty must verified his lack of intellectual capacity with his drunken escapades with many women-not-his-wife and all the rest. During the Chappaquiddick era, Volkswagen autos were advertised as constructed so tightly that they floated. There was a famous photo in one magazine ad that showed one floating across a lake. Later, Mad magazine ran its parody of the VW ad with the picture of the floating Beetle and the headline: “If Ted Kennedy had driven a Beetle, Mary Jo Kopechne would still be alive.”

Sad, but true. RH: My Democrat friends say Edward overcame his problems and has had an excellent record as Senator.

Miles Seeley says: "I will not pass judgement (for now, anyway) on the Kennedy family's ethics, whether or not JFK was a good President, and so on. Let me just tell you a little story: I was under very deep cover in a North African country. I heard JFK's Inaugural Address on a radio I had rigged up to receive our Armed Forces Radio Network. I was first spellbound by his speech, and then filled with enormous pride that he would be our President and I would be serving under his Administration. Those feelings pushed aside the constant state of caution, suspicion, sometimes even fear that I lived under. I have never forgotten that night and those feelings". RH: We all remember that speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country!" Wild applause. Suppose he had added: "I am therefore increasing your taxes to meet national needs". Would the audience have said they would be delighted to do it for their country?

Alberto Gutiérrez points out the gap between the Kennedy myth and reality: "Let's not forget the contribution of the US media brainwashing the people of this country: For many years it was "the Kennedys this " and "the Kennedys that " . There were even "tales"of a new Camelot, and the fawning and genuflection reached the extreme when the Kennedys were considered US "royalty "." RH: Alberto wants to drop the subject, but the Kennedy story provides a good case study of the American presidency.

Hank Levin says: "I am curious to know what WAISes think of Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life. Dallek is a noted historian at Boston University. When the book was published last year, it got good reviews from historians for its balance between the good and the bad, neither an attack nor a glossing of blemishes. The book is well over 800 pages, but worth reading. What I was shocked by was the naked and crude ambition of the father Joseph Kennedy (Mr. Ambassador) in getting Jack elected President, The father had tremendous financial and political power, as well as a relentless drive and cruelness to get what he wanted. He was also an alcoholic and whoremonger. To put it mildly, he was not a nice man. The book implies that Jack came by his own infidelities naturally since philandery was considered to be a manly act in the Kennedy family. By Kennedy standards, Clinton was a wimp in this department, and particularly the use of the White House for such purposes". RH: The splendid TV documentary series on the Kennedys drew heavily on Dallek's book. It is unfortunate that the US patronage system can result in a person like Joseph Kennedy being appointed ambassador to Great Britain, a job for which he was totally unqualified.

Alberto Gutiérrez writes: "Long ago I read The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster by John Davies, a cousin of Jackeline Kennedy .That book cites a number of unglorified facts contrary to the fabricated aura of the Kennedy family. According to a Cuban friend of mine, the rich Kennedys disdained their poor relatives. As a matter of fact, her late husband was a poor Kennedy". RH: Very un-Christian, as was President Kennedy's life. Nevertheless, fearing death, he three times received extreme unction. There is a sad disconnect here.

Phyllis Gardner comments on my posting about the five History Channel programs on the Kennedy family: "I have a more positive outlook on the Kennedy legacy than Ronald's. There is a wonderful editorial in the New York Times (4/23/04) about Sargent Shriver (married to Eunice Kennedy for over 50 years, and the father of Maria Shriver, the wife of our governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). Among other things, Shriver launched Kennedy's vision, first articulated in his inaugural address, to found Peace Corps (my father led one of the first Peace Corps missions, training them at Iowa State University and deploying them in St. Lucia in 1962). Shriver went on to start Headstart, the Job Corps, and many other wonderful endeavors. I loved these words:

Mr. Shriver's commitment to public service has always seemed both joyous and total. In 1994, he told graduating students at Yale, his alma mater, to break all their mirrors. "Yes, indeed," he said, "shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor, and less about your own"."

RH: My posting was a summary of the History Channel documentaries about the Kennedy family. Sargent Shriver visited Stanford years ago. He was clearly a public spirited, nice person. He greeted me like an old friend, which I suppose is the way he greets the world.


Ronald Hilton -