In case the last 500 books about John F. Kennedy aren't enough, another is available.
Thanks to historian Robert Dallek, we now know the King of Camelot was a sick man from his early years. As well, his highness jousted with a White House intern.
Dallek titled his new biography an An Unfinished Life, which should dispel any doubts about its tone.
Kennedy was always sickly. During a pre-publication publicity gig on NBC's "Dateline," Dallek revealed that Kennedy nearly died when he was 30, one of three times before 40 that he received the last rites of the Catholic Church. This belies the popular myth about the hale and hardy Hercules of Hyannis.
And Kennedy's famous back problems did not begin with his exploits on the PT 109 during World War II. He was lame long before that. By the time he was in the White House, he was a dope fiend of Presleyian proclivity. He was on 10 medications simultaneously, took up to nine daily injections for pain, went to different doctors to get different drugs, and was secretly hospitalized nine times after "successful" back surgery. Pain often prevented him from putting on his shoes and socks and ascending the stairs to Air Force One. They hauled him up in a cart.
Despite these infirmities, his sexual prowess was legendary, which is where the intern comes in. According to an AP report on the book, Kennedy took the 19-year-old along on trips, and not for dictation.
No surprise there. You just wonder whether she contracted the sterilizing venereal disease the cad carried around for 30 years.
The Third Way
Whatever a reader concludes, Dallek's reaction to the fruits of his research is nonchalant.
Asked whether covering up his ill health was a sign of Kennedy's will power or dishonesty, Dallek burbled this cagey answer on "Dateline:" "I would say there's a third way to look at it, which is my way. Yes, was heroic and strong, but he had flaws. You see both sides of it. You strike a balance."
That "balance" leads to Dallek's conclusion about Kennedy's zipper problem. "There were lots of women," Dallek told a newspaper. "The real question is: Did it distract him from his job as president? I think it really didn’t."
Surely, this man is kidding. Of course it "distracted" him. Kennedy slept with an East German spy, as well as a bevy of prostitutes procured by underlings serving as pimps. A distraction? Read The Dark Side of Camelot, by Seymour Hersh, and you'll learn Kennedy's satyriasis wasn't just "distracting."
It was consuming.
How Accurate Is He?
And likely fatal. Like Hersh, Dallek reports that a brace stopped Kennedy from ducking after Lee Harvey Oswald's first shot struck the president's neck. But "Dateline" erroneously attributed the brace to Kennedy's celebrated back, which Dallek did not correct.
Whatever Dallek's book says, Hersh revealed the truth: Kennedy wore the brace because he ripped a groin muscle when he slipped during some poolside, extramarital monkeyshines.
In the introduction to his book, Dallek says he wants to "penetrate the veneer of glamour and charm to reconstruct the real man," not to "debunk" him.
Impossible. One leads to the other.
May 14, 2003
Syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.