for National Geographic News
Imagine John F. Kennedy still alive today. He would be 86 years old. Chances are the camera, which once loved him, would long ago have betrayed him. Imagine him with the long hair and sideburns characteristic of the 1970s, or ripening into old age, the hands spotted, the eyes dim, the face jowly, the hair a shock of silvery gray.
It's hard to do. Cut off 40 years ago tomorrow by an assassin's bullet, John F. Kennedy in our imagination is always in the prime of life, the hair a tousled auburn, the face crinkled in a grin, the eyes squinting into the future from out of chiseled black-and-white or glowing Kodachrome photographs.
Although it's conceivable that today he might be a retired elder statesman writing his memoirs, it's just as likely he might be a divorced, discredited, pathetic figure hounded from the White House by sexual scandal. Chances are, however, knowing what we do of his medical problems, that even without the assassin's bullet John F. Kennedy would probably not be alive today.
Americans have always loved Kennedy. Even while president, his approval ratings only once dropped below 60 percent. After his death, when the Camelot mythology was born, his thousand-day presidency was cast as one brief shining moment, and that aura still lingers today. A recent poll of the general public has John F. Kennedy tied with Abraham Lincoln as the greatest of American presidents.
Historians, however, have tended to be harsher; in one 1988 poll, scholars listed him the single most overrated figure in all of American history. Revisionist portraits of Kennedy inevitably swung from one extreme to another. By the mid-1990s, the dashing prince, the prophet of the New Frontier, had become a sex-crazed playboy whose father bought him the presidency; a sick man lurching from one international crisis to another, miring the country in Vietnam and nearly destroying the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Now, 40 years after his death, a more balanced reappraisal of both man and president is finally emerging.
Today no one denies his shortcomings. For one thing, he clearly deceived the public about how severe were his medical problems. He had Addison's disease, a failure of the adrenal glands, and needed daily cortisone shots and dangerous steroids in order to combat it. Furthermore, he was dependent on numerous other drugs to fight colitis, severe back pain, prostatitis, arthritis, and other assorted ailmentsplus frequent injections of some kind of witches' brew that amounted to amphetamines. He was often hospitalized. So serious was his condition that, several times before he even became president, he was administered last rites by Catholic priests.
Did this affect his ability to govern? Having researched the question exhaustively, Robert Dallek, author of the highly praised An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, concludes, "His medical difficulties did not significantly undermine his performance as president on any major question." Nevertheless, Kennedy's rapidly degenerating back may have put him in a wheelchair by the end of a second term, and his blood cholesterol count of over 400 may have led to his being felled by heart attack or stroke before he even approached old age.
The realization that he would likely die young may have impelled Kennedy into bouts of reckless sexual activity. Even his most faithful disciples have admitted that he was clearly a compulsive womanizer, driven by some deep need to have frequent if furtive sex. Even allowing for exaggeration, he appears to have had an astonishing number of sexual encounters.
One such relationship involved a girlfriend of a Chicago Mafia boss, opening the question of mob influence on the White House; another was with an East German girl, dangerously ignoring national security concerns. Yet a third, recently revealed, affair, was with a White House internseveral decades before a similar dalliance nearly upended Bill Clinton's presidency. Reporters heard rumors but did not publish them. Today many believe it was only a matter of time before a scandal erupted. Such brazen, unnecessary risk taking was the darkest side of Camelot.
His personal shortcomings aside, historians today are increasingly agreeing with Kennedy's own view of himself as being "an idealist without illusions." His reputation as an effective president, once at low ebb, seems to be rising again.