Camelot on Painkillers

The big things to say about the recent JFK allegations—amazing, isn’t it, that “recent JFK allegations” is still an operative phrase in 2002?—are obvious.

  • Illnesses as serious, varied and potentially debilitating as JFK’s, which included Addison’s disease, chronic and intense back pain due to the collapse of bones in his spinal column, intestinal problems including colitis and ulcers, chronic prostatitis and urethritis, frequent fatigue, high fevers, increased vulnerability to infection, frequent headaches, diarrhea and a chronic abscess in his back, should have been fully divulged to the American people before they voted in the 1960 election.
  • The medications he took, including corticosteroids, procaine, antispasmodics including Lomotil, testosterone, amphetamines to help combat fatigue and depression, Nembutal and, for a few days, an antipsychotic drug were, as we now say, inappropriate in a sitting president, and a standing one too, if he could stand.
  • That this information, much of which existed for more than four decades, was suppressed, including by his presidential library, which in effect has used taxpayer money to keep secrets from taxpayers, is a scandal, and the rules and regulations by which presidential libraries operate should, as they say in Washington, be revisited.
  • But other thoughts arise. When the brilliant journalist Dorothy Thompson watched JFK’s inauguration she—a longtime liberal and FDR supporter—fretted to a friend: “There’s something weak and neurotic about that young man.” She knew his story, knew of the charming monster of a father who was an isolationist in foreign affairs and a constant interventionist in all other spheres, especially his family. In Clark Clifford’s memoirs, the old Democratic Party warhorse-in-lawyer’s-pinstripes wrote of his first meeting with Sen. Kennedy, in the 1950s. JFK was pliant, pleasing, needed legal assistance. During their meeting old Joe called to bark instructions and yell at the senator and the attorney. Clifford found it chilling. JFK handled his father coolly. To read the scene with recent revelations in mind is to wonder what toll the facts of his life took on JFK, and to ponder a paradox. Old Joe’s blind ambition probably made his son president; old Joe probably made his son sick, too.

    *   *   *

    Robert Dallek, the historian to whom the JFK records were made available, is careful to say in his Atlantic Monthly article that JFK’s refusal to complain about his pain was gallant. I would add: and old school. He didn’t feel your pain; he felt his, and kept it to himself. You find yourself feeling more personal admiration for him after the revelations, not less. Sick as a dog from childhood, he lived as a wit, an activist, a rake.

    But Mr. Dallek is perhaps too quick to assert that none of the drugs JFK took, or the conditions he suffered from, seem to have impaired his leadership. He notes that JFK had three doctors treating him, one of whom, the famous “Dr. Feelgood,” Max Jacobson, was giving him amphetamine shots during his first summit with Krushchev. There, JFK displayed an utter inability to defend free-market capitalism in the face of Krushchev’s coarse onslaughts on the superiority of Marxism. Kennedy flailed. After the meeting Krushchev operated with a new belligerence, cutting Berlin in two with a wall and placing missiles in Cuba.

    Two other points. Someday a bright and diligent historian will take a look at the spectacle of JFK celebration in the media that commenced upon his death and has never fully abated. The endless magazine covers, the made-for-TV movies, the pictures, the poems, the bestsellers. All of this involved not just manipulation of the media but enthusiastic and over-the-top media complicity, which created a still-weird dynastic myth that continues in the Democratic party: Kennedys are gods. And this from the party of the working man. If you wonder why even your teenagers are affected by the myth of Camelot, know that the artists, writers, producers, network heads and magazine editors who now dominate the media were children during the great Kennedy celebration. Its images and assertions are embedded in their brains.

    *   *   *

    The revelations also underscore that JFK was very much a man of his time. He was of the Sinatra generation; they got through the Depression, fought the war, and came home too hip for the room. People think the boomers discovered sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but it was their parents, really—second-generation Americans home from Anzio and the South Pacific, beginning to leave the safety and social embarrassment of their immigrant parents’ religion, informed by what they’d been taught as children about World War I and what happened at Versailles, influenced by Scott and Ernest and the lost generation. Add some Marx and the man in the gray flannel suit, throw in some Vat 69, and some pills. Put that all together, shake it, add a pinch of Freud and pour it out; what you get is party. The greatest generation on Saturday night.

    They were a great generation and they were more than that, and less. They created the boomers, the welfare state, the world we live in. They were one rocking group, and JFK was very much of them.