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Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2002 / 17 Kislev, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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JFK's secret health woes are revealed | What else don't we know that we should?

That's the question you're left asking after reading Atlantic Monthly's incredible cover piece on "The Medical Ordeals of JFK," which reveals that the energetic, youthful John F. Kennedy the public fell for in 1960 was - take your pick - a dangerous myth or a political fraud.

The JFK that the country was fed via TV and in Life magazine photo spreads when he was alive, and the JFK that persists in the national consciousness to this day, was of a vigorous, robust and athletic politician.

In fact, as historian Robert Dallek profusely details, the real JFK - the one his family and handlers succeeded in hiding for obvious reasons - was a sickly medical wreck often on the verge of dying much of his life.

Dallek's nine-page article, based on records recently released to him by the Kennedy family for a coming JFK biography, often reads like a medical textbook.

From his teens, JFK spent long periods in the hospital with severe intestinal ailments, infections, crippling back problems and a mysterious ailment that doctors thought for a while was leukemia.

Before he was out of his 30s, he had been in two comas and had been given last rites at least twice by priests. He had chronic ulcers, colitis, urinary infections and was dangerously underweight and often in severe pain.

He had Addison's disease, a debilitating and potentially life-threatening condition of the adrenal glands that screws up hormones that regulate your blood and can affect the body's response to stressful situations like, say, a Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1960, when JFK was fighting Lyndon Johnson for the presidential nomination, Dallek says LBJ's forces told the press JFK had a life-threatening case of Addison's disease, which he did, but the Kennedys produced doctors who swore JFK's health was excellent.

In JFK's first six months in office, Dallek says, "he suffered stomach, colon and prostate problems, high fevers, occasional dehydration, abscesses, sleeplessness and high cholesterol, in addition to his ongoing back and adrenal problems."

While president, he could barely walk up steps and, as a photo shows, often was off-loaded from Air Force One in a cherry picker, out of sight of the clueless or compliant news media. How JFK's maladies affected his sex life, Dallek never says.

Dallek does acknowledge the obvious - if the public had known how ill JFK really was, he never would have been elected president. But he contends that JFK's lifelong health problems did not affect his thinking or his decision making, before or during his presidency.

Of course, Dallek is a JFK-friendly historian who ultimately puts a positive spin on both the Kennedy machine's evil machinations and JFK's gamble that - during the heat of the Cold War - his serious medical troubles wouldn't affect his handling of the job.

The scope of Kennedy's suffering is amazing, and it's partly true, as Dallek says, that knowing about it now actually makes JFK a more heroic and sympathetic character, albeit a more reckless one. And knowing about it now - 40 years too late - also makes you wonder what other dirty "little" secrets have been hidden from us by our great leaders.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald