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.
LRB 20 November 2003 | PDF Download