The pain of the political animal

John F. Kennedy
June 11, 2004

A sense of mortality drove JFK politically and sexually, Nicholas Cull discovers

The career of the 35th president of the US rested on a historical knife edge. Had John F. Kennedy died 500 days earlier, he would have been a historical footnote - a sort of Gerald Ford with an expensive haircut. Had he died later, he could easily have been ruined by lurid revelations about his private life - a sort of randy Nixon. As things stood, his death in November 1963 provided the emotional impetus that allowed his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to enact the civil rights legislation that Kennedy had initiated but seen bogged down on Capitol Hill. Hence, Kennedy's political life derived its final measure of significance from the manner of his death.

Forty years on, his profile remains high. Much of this can be explained by the fortunes of his successors. They survived office physically intact, but all were political casualties to some extent. Only Ronald Reagan had a really happy exit, and his reputation remained high, as evidenced by reaction to his death this past week. Given the veritable cult of Kennedy, it was inevitable that the anniversary of his assassination would bring a crop of new books, but there is much in Robert Dallek's John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life that lifts it above the ordinary anniversary cash-in.

Dallek, whose previous works include an acclaimed two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, integrates two fresh bodies of evidence into this life of JFK. The first is transcripts of conversations taped in the White House after Kennedy installed recording equipment in mid-1962, the second is his medical records. Dallek gives unprecedented attention to previously repressed details of Kennedy's health. The results are startling. Despite Kennedy's image of vigour and youth, he was one of the unhealthiest men to occupy the White House. There are more index entries for "Kennedy, health problems of" than for "Kennedy, Jacqueline" and more on his medications than his supremely influential father, Joseph P. Kennedy.

JFK's health problems interrupted his education and multiplied in adulthood. He had colitis, duodenal ulcers, prostatitis, back pain - as his bones slowly collapsed with osteoporosis - and then his war wound. The Kennedy family's readiness to seek the best medicine for their stricken son apparently exacerbated the problem by exposing him to quackery. Dallek suggests that experimental hormone treatments administered for colitis in the late 1930s probably induced the Addison's disease that dogged Kennedy's later life. He was so ill that he received the last rites on numerous occasions.

For Dallek, this ill-health was central to Kennedy's psychology. He argues persuasively that Kennedy's sense of mortality both drove his political ambition and fed his compulsive womanising, as if he could never pass up a chance to demonstrate he was still alive. The family constructed a complex web of deception around Kennedy's ill-health, employing many doctors but telling none the whole story, so that "plausible denials" of his condition could be obtained as necessary. Dallek has no doubt that if the public had known about candidate Kennedy's health, he would not have been elected. But Dallek also states that Kennedy's health did not compromise his ability to discharge his duties.

A great biographer is able to transcend the reader's knowledge of the end of the story and carry the audience back into the flow of the life. Dallek performs exactly such a trick, with interesting results. New watersheds emerge. The great turning point in Kennedy's life seems to have been the death of his elder brother in 1944, after which he inherited all his father's ambition and was swiftly bounced into running for Congress.

The Senate race and the ensuing drive for the White House are the most dynamic portions of the book. Every ounce of the family's energy is bent to the task of getting brother John elected. The tensions during the presidential primary and the election itself are worthy of a political thriller, and one can imagine the politician of the mid-21st century citing a youthful encounter with Dallek's book as the inspiration for their career.

The presidency itself comes as a distinct anticlimax. Kennedy is prevented from enacting reform by the deadlock on Capitol Hill. Months pass before the victorious candidate really shows his mettle. The moment of transformation seems to be in his confrontation with US Steel in early 1962. Here, Dallek has used hitherto-closed oral histories to recreate the minutiae of the President's stand against higher steel prices. Kennedy's language is as fruity as one would expect from a former naval lieutenant.

The crowning moments of Kennedy's White House are in the realm of foreign policy as he manages the Cuban missile crisis, then brokers a nuclear test-ban treaty with the USSR. Here, taped transcripts of key meetings carry the reader into the heart of the decision-making process. Kennedy is seen applying the brakes on military advisers who make Dr Strangelove seem like a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

The book ends with a fascinating coda in which Dallek allows himself the luxury of considering Kennedy's place in history. He points out that Kennedy's performance in the House of Respresentatives and the Senate alone would not make him a worthy subject for biographical study, but that his record in the White House - and particularly during the Cuban missile crisis - is sufficiently strong to place him among the foremost 20th-century presidents.

But Dallek's parting thought jars the non-American reader: "The Kennedy thousand days... demonstrated that America was still the last best hope of mankind." Such a statement seems amazingly out of place in a work of scholarship. One cannot imagine an English historian concluding a book on Churchill with the claim that England was "still the last best hope of mankind" or an Irish writer concluding a biography of De Valera with the words that Ireland was "still the last best hope of mankind". The very idea of mankind's hopes being embodied by a country is alien to European thinking in the 21st century. The reader, moreover, will legitimately ask exactly what America offers the world in this story of a millionaire's son scraping into the presidency on his charm, flourishing more in image than in substance, and learning just enough on the job to avoid Armageddon, before being gunned down by a home-grown maniac.

Yet there were many wonderful things about Kennedy. One was his ability to think beyond "nation". The archive of the Kennedy White House reveals a man who considered himself president of the free world, and who knew that this required a profound engagement with the free world, not tub-thumping.

Dallek notes that Kennedy would regret a biographer having such knowledge of his medical and sexual history. One wonders whether he might also regret his life being used to make a rather empty nationalistic point.

Nicholas Cull is professor of American studies, Leicester University.

John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, 1917-1963

Author - Robert Dallek
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 838
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9737 0

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