JFK's Many Lives and Deaths—40 Years Later

Mark Jenkins
for National Geographic News
November 21, 2003
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.

Appraising JFK

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 ailments—plus 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 intern—several 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.

One important reason is that in the last decade, a wealth of new material has become available, including official documents, diaries, and especially secret White House tapes. The tapes especially have led to dramatically improved evaluations of Kennedy's performance throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably the most dangerous moment the world has ever known. They reveal not only how close civilization tottered on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but also how masterfully Kennedy managed the crisis, refusing the military option to embrace the diplomatic solution.

Criticized for his initial reluctance to strongly support civil rights, Kennedy did eventually turn about and declare it a pressing "moral issue." He died soon thereafter, but much of the landmark civil rights legislation passed during the Johnson administration had its roots in Kennedy's term.

In foreign affairs he preferred projecting American ideals, through such institutions as the Peace Corps, to projecting military power. Yet his reputation has been mired in the Vietnam quagmire—perhaps unfairly so. Kennedy did increase the number of American military "advisors," but apparently was drawing the line at combat troops, and may—no one can be sure—have been intending to pull out altogether.

And that, according to Hollywood screenwriter and director Oliver Stone's 1991 film, JFK, was the reason the military conspired in his murder.

Blur Analysis

The circumstances of Kennedy's death have generated far more speculation than all the achievements or shortcomings of his life. Thousands of books, articles, and web sites have attempted to solve a longstanding mystery: Who really killed JFK?

Despite the 1964 Warren Commission, which concluded Lee Harvey Oswald did so unaided, most people have agreed with Jacqueline Kennedy when, after the shots first rang out, she reportedly exclaimed, "Oh God, no, they have shot my husband!"

"They," of course, implies conspirators. In a recent Gallup poll, a whopping 75 percent of Americans believe Kennedy's death was the result of a conspiracy, although not necessarily one as vast and far-reaching as that depicted in Oliver Stone's JFK, in which a whole shadow government is implicated.

The more plausible conspiracies include pro-Castro Cubans retaliating for Kennedy-inspired CIA plots to assassinate Fidel; anti-Castro Cubans avenging Kennedy's supposed betrayal of their cause at the Bay of Pigs; the Mafia, furious at the administration's crackdown on its activities; rogue elements in the CIA; or some mixture of all of them. Lee Harvey Oswald, the original lone gunman, is in some versions merely an accomplice, and in others an innocent patsy.

There are many self-styled "assassination researchers." Among them, blur analysis has become a fine art. Sharp eyes have pored over grainy photos of those historic moments, and wherever they have spotted blurred ambiguities, imagination has been swift to follow.

In some photographs, researchers have detected a man apparently holding an open umbrella—which, of course, they suggest must have fired a poison dart, striking JFK and paralyzing him for the benefit of snipers. In other pictures, vegetation on a grassy knoll apparently is concealing some of the dozens of sharpshooters various researchers claim to have identified. One smudge is explained as the pistol with which the president's limo driver shoots Kennedy before—a blink of an eye later—he will resume his duties behind the wheel.

In the vast structure of conspiracy, no detail, no blade of grass, is inconsequential. "Everything adheres," writes American author Don DeLillo in Libra, his novel on the assassination, and it all amounts to "the Joycean book of America…the novel in which nothing is left out."

The touchstone common to all sides in the debate is the famous Zapruder film, the ultimate home movie. Only 26 seconds long, it is a mere bit of celluloid wrapped around a tiny plastic spool. It now lies in a vault in the National Archives, purchased by the government in 1999 for $16 million dollars (U.S.), making it perhaps the most valuable piece of film in the world.

Watch it yet once more. The cars roll by in the bright afternoon. The president lifts his hand to wave. The smile, the wit, the charisma are still intact. The roses, emblem of martyrs, are beside him. Believe it or not, someone has seriously conjectured that what is about to happen was secretly planned by Kennedy himself. Aware that he was dying of Addison's disease, he instead preferred to stage his own gory exit, sacrificing himself to ensure his enduring hold on our memory.

John F. Kennedy as ultimate conspirator. That may be the strangest twist in the mythmaking that for 40 years has been fashioning so many of his lives and deaths.

Mark Jenkins is a National Geographic Society historian and archivist.

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