On the eve of the 1960 Democratic convention, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson personally called a doctor in California who had let slip a confidence about Sen. John Kennedy being treated regularly with powerful drugs to combat Addison's disease, a painful and debilitating ailment. The doctor was evasive.
After JFK defeated LBJ for the nomination, a disgruntled Johnson aide passed the tip along to the Nixon forces. I heard Bob Finch talk to a doctor named Blood, and then to a reporter who queried the Kennedy doctors. They brushed it off as "a mild adrenal deficiency" and asserted that the candidate had "a better than average resistance to infection."
These blatant lies were endorsed by the candidate himself as Election Day approached. If, as some speculate, Nixon operatives searched doctors' offices to get the truth, they failed: Voters were never told of Kennedy's need for a corticosteroid that suppressed his immune system.
Why, then, did Kennedy family confidant Burke Marshall _ the same lawyer who tried to cover up another Kennedy's actions at Chappaquiddick _ provide the historian Robert Dallek access to JFK's medical records, kept secret these four decades?
As recounted in The Atlantic Monthly, the legendarily vigorous young man in the Oval Office was often in terrible pain, taking steroids for Addison's disease, painkillers for his back, antispasmodics for colitis, antibiotics for urinary tract infections, as well as pills to reduce anxiety and induce sleep _ sometimes as often as eight times a day.
These medical records do not include additional drugs from Max Jacobson, who later lost his license for prescribing amphetamines. (In 1972, New York Times reporters Martin Tolchin and Dr. Lawrence Altman _ pursuing a tip about Vice President Spiro Agnew that never panned out _ followed the trail that led to earlier supply of speed by "Dr. Feelgood" to the Kennedy White House.)
Perhaps Marshall was able to win Ted Sorensen's reluctant assent to release the records kept secret so long at the JFK Library because they showed heroism in the face of sustained suffering. Dallek balances the revelation of the successful lifelong medical cover-up with "the quiet stoicism of a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain," which should be considered in judgments about character.
What else is there in the taxpayer-subsidized Kennedy Library that might provide students of history material that goes beyond the transcripts and adulatory movies showing a crisp, alert president saving the world from missiles in Cuba?
During the '70s firestorm about secret taping in the Nixon White House, hoots of derision were aimed at Nixonites who protested lamely that "everybody did it." I was told that the JFK loyalist Dave Powers destroyed tapes of telephone conversations on the president's private line. Frankly, only prurient interest is served by further documentation of indiscretions; wide coverage of that did not discourage a subsequent president.
More significant are 100 hours of tapes _ recorded secretly in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room by history-minded JFK _ known to be under lock and key. This might be supplemented or balanced by the 500-page oral history by Jackie Kennedy, restricted from public view during her daughter's lifetime. "The frontier of Kennedy scholarship," Dallek tells me, "is still in the archives."
Little, Brown intends to bring out his completed book, of which the 7,000 words in The Atlantic Monthly is a preview, a year from now (which shows how little some book publishers know about news). Meanwhile, other doctors who saw its front-page coverage in Sunday's New York Times are e-mailing more data to Dallek. Hospitals where Kennedy was privately cared for a half-century ago will be more free to add to his medical history: The "absentee senator," as opponents labeled him, may have preferred to be seen more as playboy than as patient.
These emerging revelations display Kennedy's penchant for political concealment and media manipulation _ ameliorated by his inspiring example of willingness to undergo great pain to succeed in wielding great power.
But this drives home the point that candidates should not put ambition above honesty in dealing with questions about their physical and mental ability to serve. And they should order their doctors to tell the public the whole truth.
+ William Safire is a New York Times columnist. +
New York Times News Service