Congressman JFK - History

Congressman JFK - History

President Kennedy's great-grand parents emigrated from Ireland to the US in the mid-19th century. Both the President's grandfathers enjoyed distinguished political careers. His paternal grandfather was a state senator and a behind-the-scenes's political operator. His maternal grandfather was a Congressman and Mayor of Boston. President Kennedy's parents, Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph Kennedy, were born into very comfortable homes, and their upbringing reflected that security. They both lived in large houses, with servants, and both went to excellent schools. Joseph began a successful career in banking and Rose worked closely with her father, as he served as the Mayor of Boston. They were married in 1914.

President Kennedy's great-grand parents emigrated from Ireland to the US in the mid-19th century. His paternal great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, arrived in East Boston from Ireland in the 1840s, as a result of the devastating potato famines that decimated the population. Patrick married Bridget Murphy and had three children before he died.

Kennedy's maternal great-grandfather was Thomas Fitzgerald, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1854. Fitzgerald first settled in Acton, before moving to Boston, where he owned a grocery store that doubled as a tavern. Kennedy's grandfather, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, was born in 1858, the same year his father died of cholera. Patrick began working at the docks, as soon as he was old enough to earn money for his family. He was able to save money enabling him to open a series of bars. Patrick Kennedy was a popular figure around Boston, and soon entered politics. First, he become a representative in the Massachusetts Lower House, and then in the State Senate.

Patrick Kennedy remained a powerful Boston politician throughout his life, holding various political appointments. In 1887, he married Mary Augusta Hickey, from an established Boson-based Irish family. They had one son Joseph Patrick and two daughters, all of whom were brought up in relative wealth.

Jack's maternal grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, was in born in 1863, the fourth of 12 children. Fitzgerald was accepted into the prestigious Boston Latin School, where he excelled. Fitzgerald went on to Boston College, where he earned a degree. He entered Harvard Medical School, but abandoned his studies when his father died. Fitzgerald became active in politics, both behind the scenes, and as secretary to Matthew Kearny, one of the Democratic Party bosses. Fitzgerald eventually became a City Councilman and was later elected to Congress, where he served for three terms. He did not run for a fourth Congressional term, but instead prepared himself to run for Mayor of Boston, which he became in 1905. In 1889 he had married Mary Joseph Hannon, his second cousin. They had six children, the oldest Rose Elizabeth, was President Kennedy's mother.

Rose Kennedy was born in 1890. She lived a very comfortable life, moving first from Boston to West Concord when she was seven and then to the upscale suburb of Dorchester. She went to good schools including the elite Catholic school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Following graduation, Rose was sent on a two-year trip to Europe, which was followed by another year at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. At that point, with her father re-elected to the Mayoralty of Boston, she became her father's hostess and helper. At the age of 20, she had a coming-out party, attended by 450 of the leaders of the Boston community. The next step was marriage.

Joseph Kennedy, President Kennedy's father, was born in 1888. He was always an ambitious boy. At age 15, he organized a semi-professional baseball team. He went to Boston Latin, where as an Irish Catholic he was in the distinct minority. Joe excelled both academically and at sports, becoming the captain of the baseball team. He won the Mayor's Cup, for being the high school student with the highest average in the state. Joe then went on to Harvard University. While at Harvard, Joe launched his first successful business venture, buying a tour bus operator for $600 and turning a $10,000 profit after two summers of operation.

After graduating Harvard, Joe decided to go into banking. After a short stint at Columbia Trust , where his father was a large share-owner, Joe became a state banking examiner. When Columbia Trust was threatened in a takeover by a larger bank, he successfully led the counterattack and saved the bank's independence. In the process, he became the bank's President. In his three years as the bank's president, Joe established himself as one of the country's up-and-coming young businessmen.

Joe Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald first met and fell in love in the summer of 1906. At that point, her father did not think Joe was a suitable suitor for his daughter's hand. However, the couple was determined to marry and in October 1914, after a four month formal engagement, the two were wed.

Congressman JFK - History

Young Jack Kennedy rare color portrait.

A revealing photo shows the men behind young JFK in his bid to succeed in politics. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., stands directly behind, while John F. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, a colorful politician and JFK's grandfather, is beside.

1946 - Pounding the pavement in Boston. Left - John Fitzgerald Kennedy, war hero and great-grandson of Irish immigrants, campaigns for a seat in the U.S. Congress during Boston's Bunker Hill Day parade. Right - Without breaking stride, Jack accepts a bouquet of flowers from an admirer.

Left - A typical campaign stop in a small hall, crammed full of supporters and the curious. Mid - On voting day, JFK votes with his grandparents, the Fitzgeralds. Right - All smiles after the victory, a sweep, for young Jack Kennedy over eight other candidates.

After his victory, Jack took some time off to relax at the family's summer home in Hyannis Port, Mass. Right - Brother Ted helps Jack raise the sail on the little sailboat.

In Washington, the new U.S. Congressman from the 11th Congressional District, 29-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts. Jack was easily re-elected to the seat in 1948 and 1950.

1948 family photos. Left - At the Kennedy home in Palm Beach, Florida, Pat, Ted and cousin Joe Gargan decorate the family Christmas tree and show off Bobby's knee for the camera. Mid - Bobby makes a spectacular catch during a game of touch football, a Kennedy tradition. Right - At Hyannis Port, the Kennedy brothers, Jack, Bobby and Ted.

Left - Congressman Kennedy on an inspection tour of the Boston waterfront. Right - In 1951, JFK (in rear) in Vietnam on a fact finding tour with the French. Kennedy was critical of U.S. support of the French there, saying, "We have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of empire."

1952 - The rising young politician gets the nod of approval from President Harry Truman, despite Truman's great dislike for Joe Kennedy Sr. Regarding Jack, Truman declares, "There is little doubt of the great political future in store for Kennedy."

By this time, Jack is bored by the dull routine of Congress with its rigid seniority system and has set his sights on the U.S. Senate. His family rallies behind him in an all-out effort against stiff odds to defeat Republican incumbent Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a Boston Yankee - a class of people who could trace their lineage back to the Mayflower Ship and were blatantly proud of it.

The 1952 Senate campaign. Left - Jack's sisters, Pat and Eunice go door-to-door handing out bumper stickers. Another successful tactic was a series of afternoon teas, 35 in all, hosted by Jack's mother, Rose. Mid - Rose introduces Jack to the audience of women. Right - After back surgery, Jack continued the campaign while in pain and on crutches.

In his boyhood and throughout his young life, Jack Kennedy suffered from an incredible number of health problems including scarlet fever, diphtheria, appendicitis, malaria, jaundice, hepatitis, adrenal insufficiency, irritable stomach, a hearing problem (left ear), pet allergy (dogs), and chronic back pain. Despite it all, to the public he later defined the look of vibrant American youth, a huge accomplishment, due largely to Jack's sheer will power in overcoming his health problems.

In Washington, the new junior Senator from Massachusetts. During the successful campaign, run by his brother Bobby, Jack shook 750,000 hands. On election night, Kennedy supporters sweated as the first disappointing election returns came in and it wasn't until 5 a.m. the next morning when they knew Jack had pulled off the upset.

1955 - Senator Kennedy at his desk after another ordeal of back surgery and a lengthy hospital stay and recovery during which he produced Profiles in Courage. The book examined the lives of eight outstanding past U.S. Senators and went on to win the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography, greatly enhancing Jack's reputation.

During Jack's stay in the hospital, the Senate voted to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the instigator of a nationwide panic regarding alleged communists in the U.S. government. Jack was absent and never cast a vote, leading to lingering criticism of his actions in not recording a vote later and in not hopping onto the bandwagon and publicly condemning McCarthy. Jack's family had ties to McCarthy. Bobby had briefly served on his staff and McCarthy had been a guest at Hyannis Port.

Daily business. Left - Attending a committee meeting with crutches placed behind him. Right - Stretched out on the sofa in Sen. Hubert Humphrey's office.

Of the many committees Jack served on, the Select Committee of the Senate to Investigate Improper Activities in Labor-Management Relations caught the public's attention as Jack, with younger brother Robert as chief legal counsel, investigated racketeering among labor union officials. Jack then sponsored a labor bill aimed at eliminating criminal practices in unions.

Left - Around the table, a gathering of politicians includes JFK and his future vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Mid - During a tour of Strategic Air Command's underground command post, Jack gets briefed. Right - The Senator's young wife, Jackie, makes an appearance at a Washington function. Married to JFK in 1953, her movie star looks and extraordinary charm were a huge political asset.

Left - Enjoying a joke with Vice President Richard Nixon and Boxing Champ Rocky Marciano. Right - Jack sought the political support of feisty former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but she scolded him for not condemning Joe McCarthy.

Jack was reelected to the Senate by the people of the Massachusetts with 73.6 percent of the vote in 1958. Senator Kennedy, politically matured now, had already tasted national politics, almost getting the nod to be vice president at the 1956 Democratic convention. When Kennedy is told he will easily get that post in 1960, he responds, "I'm not running for the vice-presidency anymore. I'm running for the presidency."

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Early Years | War Hero | Politician | President

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Before He Was President

The Kennedy family in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, with JFK at top left in the white shirt, 1931. Image credit: Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. / Public domain

After graduating from Harvard University, Jack joined the Navy, where he was made Lieutenant and was assigned in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he ran for Congress in his home state’s eleventh congressional district, and won in 1946. A lifelong Democrat, he served three terms in the House of Representatives. Then in 1952, he was elected to the US Senate. At age 36, JFK married Jacqueline Bouvier, a 24-year old writer for the Washington Times-Herald.

Following the marriage, JFK underwent two serious back surgeries. During his recovery he wrote the book “Profiles in Courage,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. The couples’ first child, Caroline, was born that same year. Years later he began campaigning, and in 1960 was nominated as the Democratic party’s presidential candidate. On November 8, 1960, he defeated Richard M. Nixon, and was elected at age 43. He was the youngest man to ever do so, and was also the first Catholic to hold the office. Less than three weeks later, his son John Jr. was born.

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Whereas Obama has been stymied by congressional Republicans who controlled the House and capitalized on minority power in the Senate, John F. Kennedy squared off against a coalition of southern Democratic committee chairmen and Republicans. Since the 1937 backlash against Franklin D. Roosevelt, this conservative coalition had been the principle roadblock to liberal reform. Southerners, elected to safe districts, thrived in a committee system based on seniority.

The longer a person stayed in office, the more power they obtained. Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, an ardent racist, chaired a subcommittee responsible for civil rights. He liked to joke that he had special pockets made in his pants just to carry around all the bills he wouldn’t let come up for a vote. In the Senate, southerners killed bills through the filibuster, which, according to journalist William White, made the upper chamber “the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.”

By the time that Kennedy was elected president in 1960, liberals had lost faith in the existing Congress. Democrat Senator Joseph Clark called his colleagues the “sapless branch” of government and wrote that the conservative coalition was the “antithesis of democracy.” Soon after Kennedy’s election, the House Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith, who had once pretended there was a fire on his barn in Virginia just to prevent a vote on a civil-rights bill, told reporters that he would “exercise whatever weapons I can lay my hands on” to stop the new president.

Though Kennedy’s critics complained that he was too disengaged on domestic policy, even when he did move forward with legislation, the coalition remained powerful enough to block much of his progress.

On every major domestic issue, Kennedy failed to gain any traction. “I think the Congress looks more powerful sitting here than it did when I was there in Congress,” the president admitted.

Despite Kennedy’s reputation for coolness, he undertook an aggressive campaign to push his proposal for Medicare, a bill that would provide hospital insurance to the elderly, paid for by Social Security taxes. The administration worked with organized labor to build pressure on members of Congress. In December 1962, the president spoke at a massive televised rally in Madison Square Garden to urge citizens to demand that their representatives support him. At the same time, top officials in the Social Security Administration worked behind the scenes to conduct negotiations with the main committee chairs over the details of the legislation. The campaign did significantly broaden public support for Medicare.

But the opposition to Medicare within Congress was stronger. Members of the conservative coalition were firmly opposed to Medicare, which the American Medical Association branded as “socialized medicine.” The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Arkansan Wilbur Mills, refused to let the bill come up for a vote. The AMA conducted the most expensive lobbying campaign in history to oppose Medicare. It sent pamphlets to the offices of physicians so that patients leaving their appointments would read warnings about how government bureaucrats would make the decisions at their next visit.

Then there was the civil-rights legislation, aimed at ending racial segregation in public accommodations. The civil-rights movement, led by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., had been steadily mounting grassroots pressure for President Kennedy to send a bill to Congress. At first, Kennedy hesitated. Top advisers, including the ardent civil-rights supporter Harris Wofford, convinced the president that a bill would tie up the rest of his agenda, but couldn’t even make it out of committee. James Foreman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee complained that Kennedy was a “quick-talking [and] double dealing politician.”

The movement didn’t take no for an answer. As the protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963 brought international attention to the white violence that African Americans faced in Dixie, Kennedy was finally persuaded to move forward with a proposal. The protests had created enough support among Republicans to get the legislation through the House Judiciary Committee. But the administration was still uncertain whether the legislation could make it through the House floor or survive a filibuster.

When Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy in November 1963, most of the president’s domestic agenda was stalled. In Life magazine’s memorial issue for JFK in December, the lead article by the editors warned: “The 88th Congress, before the assassination, had sat longer than any peacetime Congress in memory while accomplishing practically nothing. It was feebly led, wedded to its own lethargy and impervious to criticism. It could not even pass routine appropriations bills. It was a scandal of drift and inefficiency.”

The first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency saw more progress. Most importantly, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The success of this bill, however, stemmed from the overwhelming pressure placed upon Congress by the civil-rights movement. It also relied on the impressive organization and tactical fights that liberals mounted against the southern civil-rights filibuster in the spring of 1964.

Outside of civil rights, Johnson’s gains remained limited. The situation was better than one year earlier, but Congress was not yet ready to endorse a Great Society. Congress did pass the War on Poverty, but the program obtained a very meager budget that paled in comparison to most other major domestic programs. To secure support for an across-the-board tax cut, LBJ agreed to hold the federal budget under $100 billion, so that he could obtain the support of Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, the conservative chairman of the Finance Committee. Most of his advisors agreed this was insufficient to fund any new programs of major significance,

Grassroots pressure was not always enough to move a bill as it was on civil rights. While Johnson kept pushing for Medicare, conservatives in Congress didn’t seem moved by the sentiment surrounding Kennedy’s death to pass a bill. When liberals in the Senate tried to circumvent Wilbur Mills by adding Medicare as an amendment to Social Security legislation, Mills killed the proposal in conference committee.

Then everything changed. In the 1964 elections, Johnson defeated right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater in the biggest landslide since 1936. Voters elected huge liberal majorities in Congress, rejecting Goldwater’s brand of right-wing conservatism. Democrats reminded voters that Goldwater had voted against civil rights, and stood opposed to programs such as Medicare. While Johnson touted his liberal agenda, his main goal was to depict Goldwater, and the kind of extremism that was common on the Hill, as far from the political mainstream.

Democrats came out of the election with 295 seats in the House and 68 in the Senate. The balance within the Democratic Party shifted decisively to the liberals. Most Republicans were terrified of being associated with the conservatism of Goldwater, lest they suffer the same fate.

As a result of the election, Johnson had all the votes that he needed to move forward with his bills. “There were so many Democrats,” Illinois Republican Donald Rumsfeld said, “that they had to sit on the Republican side of the aisle.”

Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to elementary and higher education, the Voting Rights Act, environmental regulation, and much more. Opponents of liberal reform realized that they would be beat. “Suddenly, after years of deadlock,” Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota recalled, “the floodgates burst open.” After Congress passed immigration reform, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts noted: “It’s really amazing. A year ago, I doubt the bill would have had a chance. This time it was easy.”

The window for legislating was short. In the 1966 midterms, a backlash against civil rights and political unrest over Vietnam allowed the conservative coalition to regain its strength in Congress. Republicans gained 47 seats in the House. The Democratic majority shrunk to 248 in the House and 64 in the Senate. “We’ve beaten the hell out of them,” Richard Nixon boasted to his advisors upon hearing the results.

Today, President Obama faces a Congress that will be just as obstructionist as the one that Kennedy faced, but he lacks the same kind of vibrant grassroots liberal movement that existed at the time. Regardless of how much Obama twists arms or how aggressive he is toward the GOP, he will not be able to make much progress with his legislation.

That doesn’t mean the future will always be bleak. The 89th Congress is proof that average Americans have the capacity to dramatically alter the status quo. In 1964, the civil-rights movement was able to put the pressure on Congress necessary to end segregation. That fall, voters elected huge liberal majorities that were ready and eager to pass many bills. An overwhelming majority of voters also rejected the kind of conservatism that Goldwater was peddling.

If Democrats are going to fundamentally change the dynamics in Washington, they will need to focus on the next series of elections in 2016 and 2018. They must also pay more attention to government reforms on matters such as partisan gerrymandering that make it hard to swing the composition of the House, so that future presidents have a better playing field.

If voters don’t change Washington, nobody else is going to do it for them.


On entering the Senate in January 1953 Kennedy was appointed to the Labor and Public Welfare Committee. He served as chairman of the Railroad Retirement Sub-committee (1955-56) and as chairman of the Labor Sub-committee (1957-present). Chairmanship of the latter subcommittee made it possible for Kennedy to emerge as the chief Senate sponsor of labor reform legislation in 1958 and 1955. From 1953 to 1956 Kennedy was a member of the Government Operations Committee, serving as chairman of the Subcommittee on Reorganization, which dealt with the Hoover Commission proposals, during the 84th Congress.

From 1956 to May 1957 Kennedy served on the Special Committee to Investigate Lobbying. He was a member of the Select Committee on Small Business (1955-56) and the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, known as the McClellan Committee (1957-1960). Kennedy was chairman of the Special Committee to Select Five Outstanding Senators (1957).

In 1957 Kennedy moved onto the Foreign Relations Committee. During the 85th Congress he was chairman of the International Organization Affairs Subcommittee, and presently serves as chairman of the African Affairs Subcommittee.

Since 1959 Kennedy has served on the Joint Economic Committee.

Kennedy's legislative interests while in the Senate have been primarily in the foreign affairs and labor fields.

He proposed July 2, 1957 that the U.S. support Algeria's effort to gain independence from France.

In 1958 Kennedy's Foreign Relations Committee International Organization Affairs Subcommittee, with Administration support, supported an amendment to amend the Battle Act to allow aid to Russian satellite nations. A June 5 amendment by Senate Minority Leader William F. Knowland (R Calif. 1945-59) struck the amendment from the bill after Knowland said the President still supported the language but would request it in separate legislation. (1958 Almanac p.186) In 1959 Kennedy introduced a similar bill for the Administration (S 1697) which passed the Senate Sept. 12. (1959 Almanac p. 196)

On April 24, 1959 he joined Sens. Humphrey and J.W. Fulbright (D Ark.) in proposing Mutual Security Program amendments designed to increase aid and reduce the purely military considerations in the formulation of the program.

Kennedy in 1959 introduced a highly controversial bill (S 819) to eliminate from the National Defense Education Act of 1958 a provision requiring loyalty oaths and affidavits from aid recipients. The Senate recommitted the bill July 23, 1959. (1959 Almanac p. 299) In 1960 Kennedy cosponsored a new bill (S 2929) to repeal the affidavit alone. The Labor and Public Welfare Committee approved the bill Feb. 2. (Weekly Report p. 189)


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I n the spring of 1962, President John F. Kennedy launched a bold effort to provide health care for the aged—later to be known as Medicare. It culminated in a nationally televised presidential address from Madison Square Garden, carried on the three television networks. It was a flop. The legislation foundered amid charges that it was an attempt to socialize medicine and a threat to individual liberty—the same charges President Obama encountered over the Affordable Care Act five decades later.

While Obama crosses his fingers and waits for to flicker to life, he can at least comfort himself knowing that he has already done more to reform the health care system than JFK, a president with a vigorous reputation and vibrant legacy. The Gallup poll reports that 74 percent of the country believe John F. Kennedy will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president, a more positive review than any other post-World War II president receives.

But the story of Kennedy’s health care failure is not just about the enduring difficulty of addressing such a thorny issue. It is about how even an energetic and determined chief executive can be constrained by the limitations of the office. Kennedy’s story of botched congressional relations, the limits of public persuasion, and the rise of a grassroots opposition that can match the power of the bully pulpit foreshadows many of the same problems President Obama faces today.

Kennedy took office with a grand new vision for the presidency. In September 1960, before his narrow victory over Richard Nixon, the then-senator read the first of several memos he had requested from political scientist Richard Neustadt. The Columbia professor had just published his seminal work Presidential Power, which offered a new theory on how a president, limited by the Constitution, can still succeed through personal persuasion, backroom maneuvering, and public prestige. Kennedy was in a hurry to put its thinking into action. By using the right formula, he could achieve the greatness he craved. Days before taking the oath, he outlined his approach to the National Press Club. Eisenhower had a “detached, limited concept of the presidency,” he said. The 1960s required a president to “place himself in the very thick of the fight … prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office … to ensure enactment of that legislation—even when conflict is the result.”

Kennedy embraced conflict on Medicare. Soon after taking office, he asked Congress to move on the issue, but like Obamacare it languished while its members pawed over it. By the spring of 1962, the president had political and personal reasons to push the fight again. Kennedy’s pollster Lou Harris counseled that he would need domestic accomplishments for his re-election and that Medicare would be an important one. The issue was also essential for the AFL-CIO, a key Democratic Party ally, and so could be incredibly helpful for Democrats facing election that year.

Kennedy had his eye on his legacy, too. That’s usually a topic for a president’s second term, but Kennedy was always in a hurry. JFK, who repeatedly referred to the gravity of foreign policy issues, also thought the measure of a great president was how much of his agenda had been pushed through Congress. He quibbled with presidential rankings that had put Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson ahead of Harry Truman and James Polk, who had actually achieved more. “[P]eople who educated the nation without necessarily accomplishing their particular purposes rated, in his judgment, below those who accomplished their purposes without necessarily bringing the nation along with them,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in A Thousand Days, his chronicle of his time in the Kennedy administration.

Inside the administration they debated how to proceed. Should the president’s aides play the inside legislative game or should the president build public pressure that would force members of Congress to act? Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had blocked the legislation, and Kennedy had to treat Mills carefully. He was the gatekeeper for all of Kennedy’s policy priorities, from taxes to trade to foreign aid. But Mills had sent signals that he might allow Medicare to sneak in under the cloak of a welfare bill, which Mills wanted to pass. Medicare would be added to the bill in the Senate, and then Mills could water it down in the conference committee where the House and Senate versions of the welfare bill were reconciled.

It was a plausible strategy, but some on Kennedy’s staff and the AFL-CIO wanted a public fight to get a stronger bill. Since the dawn of the television age, every president has faced this inside-outside tension, with presidents and their staff putting more and more stock in their ability to rally the country. It was also President Obama’s main legislative strategy.

Kennedy, who faced this presidential conundrum in its infancy, decided to follow both routes, working to persuade on the inside but also “going public”—over the heads of Congress and directly to the voters—to create pressure in Washington. He was determined to take control of his office and he had cause to press his advantage. The New York Times reported on the eve of the fight that members of Congress “on the whole appear to be far friendlier toward him and his program than at any other time since the session began in 1961. This results chiefly from the growing election-year sensitivity to Mr. Kennedy’s popular influence in the country. Even Republicans are sensitive to this influence.”

The AFL-CIO held 33 rallies across the country, culminating with Kennedy’s address on May 20 in Madison Square Garden the union packed the arena with almost 20,000 older voters.

The president started his remarks by addressing criticisms that he was unduly trying to whip up the public, instead of leaving the business of government to those who govern. He argued any large piece of legislation required public consent and called on his audience to make Medicare a public crusade. He referred to his father, whom he had just visited in the hospital—much as President Obama spoke about his mother when making the case for his reforms. But where Obama had talked about his mother wrestling with medical bills, Kennedy referred to his father’s good experience with the health care system and suggested the same should be available for any elderly person. Kennedy concluded by saying, “I refuse to see this country, and all of us, shrink from these struggles which are our responsibility in our time. Because what we are now talking about, in our children’s day will seem to be the ordinary business of government.”

The ladies in flowered hats and men in thick black glasses cheered enthusiastically, but they weren’t the audience the president needed. “[T]he president had forgotten the lesson of his campaign that arousing a partisan crowd in a vast arena and convincing the skeptical TV viewer at home require wholly different kinds of presentation,” wrote his closest aide, Ted Sorensen. “He already had support from the senior citizens he needed more support from the home viewers, and that speech did not induce it.”

That wasn’t Kennedy’s only problem. He had competition for the public mood. After the 1960 election, the American Medical Association girded for the Medicare battle, raising its dues from $35 to $70 and blanketing its members with warnings about Kennedy’s plan to socialize medicine. The organization brought in doctors from England to describe the dire straits of Great Britain’s insurance system. In advance of the Madison Square Garden push, the AMA said the Treasury was being “looted” to subsidize the biggest lobbying campaign the nation had ever seen.

To rebut Kennedy directly, the lobby purchased half an hour of television time and Dr. Edward Annis, a Miami surgeon, went to Madison Square Garden to deliver his own address. Annis spoke to an empty hall, where the banners from two nights before still hung, portraying himself as an underdog. “Nobody—certainly not your doctors—can compete in this unfamiliar art of public persuasion,” he said, lamenting that the president appeared on all three networks but the AMA (your doctor) had to purchase time and therefore could appear on only one. “We doctors fear that the American public is in danger of being blitzed, brainwashed, and bandwagoned,” he said, arguing the laws on the books allowed people to be covered through private programs. Annis then held up the legislation and attacked the president’s claims one by one. Kennedy and his aides knew immediately that they had lost the battle with the good family doctor.

But the damage didn’t end there. By going to the public, Kennedy antagonized the very members of Congress he needed to get the legislation moving. “To get a vote on Medicare in the House, we had to persuade Mills, and you don’t persuade Mills with a rally in Madison Square Garden,” said Larry O’Brien, Kennedy’s close aide, who was working the bill in Congress. “Kennedy understandably wanted to take his case to the people, but in this particular instance that approach didn’t work.”

The last chapter of Kennedy’s failure on Medicare came as a result of either being hoodwinked by members of Congress or in misreading them, which, given the nature of backroom deals in the 1960s, may have been the same thing. In a last-ditch effort, the president and Medicare proponents returned to the original strategy of trying to attach the health care program to the welfare bill in the Senate. The measure was debated for three weeks, after which Democratic leader Mike Mansfield thought he had the 50 votes needed for passage. (Vice President Lyndon Johnson would break the tie.)

The opposition, made up of Republicans and Southern Democrats, did not filibuster the bill the way they would today, but that’s because they had better weaponry. Oklahoma Sen. Robert Kerr, a Democrat and one of the most powerful men in the Senate, was the leader of the opposition. He was highly skilled at manipulating his colleagues through almost any means necessary. (“Mr. Kennedy asked Mr. Kerr decided,” wrote the Wall Street Journal at the time.) Kennedy and Kerr had both been trying to win over West Virginia Sen. Jennings Randolph to their side, but according to historian Irving Bernstein, Kerr wrote a provision into the welfare bill that extended a $21 million overexpenditure to West Virginia—essentially a kickback—and Randolph voted against Kennedy.

In the end, Kennedy’s attempt to play both the outside game and the inside game failed. Such defeats led to the kind of appraisals that President Obama now faces as his approval ratings and personal ratings hit new lows. “There is a vague feeling of doubt and disappointment about President Kennedy,” wrote James Reston in the New York Times. “He has touched the intellect of the country, but not its heart. He has informed but not inspired the nation. … [H]is problem is probably not how to get elected, but how to govern.” Fifty years later, it’s a fitting description of another president in the midst of his own health care fight.

John F. Kennedy kept these medical struggles private

Every member of “the greatest generation” can tell you where they were on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese Air Force bombed Pearl Harbor. And every Baby Boomer has a similar clarity of mind when recalling the horrors of Nov. 22, 1963.

That, of course, was the day 56 years ago when Lee Harvey Oswald murdered President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade drove through the streets of Dallas. Yet it is only in the past few decades we have had a more thorough understanding of President Kennedy’s complex medical history.

To put it bluntly, long before he died at age 46, Kennedy was a very sick man.

As a child, Kennedy nearly died from scarlet fever and also had serious digestive problems — most likely spastic colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, which plagued him for the rest of his life. As a young man, he suffered from urinary tract infections, prostatitis, and a duodenal ulcer. Better known was his notorious spine and back problems that began while playing football in college. His lower back pain was so severe, he was initially rejected by the both U.S. Army and the Navy when he first volunteered for service in World War II.

Through his own tenacity and father’s connections, Kennedy joined the Naval Reserve and became an officer on a P.T. (patrol torpedo) boat. During a battle in the Solomon Islands, on Aug. 1, 1943, the ship was strafed in half by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. PT-109 quickly sank and two of the crew members died. Eleven others, including Kennedy, survived, floundering in the Pacific. A few of them were seriously injured. Along with the crew, Kennedy swam several miles to an island, towing one of the injured men by a life-vest strap. He then swam to other islands in search of fresh water and a U.S. vessel. Eventually, the men were rescued thanks in part to a distress signal Kennedy carved on a coconut shell.

The following year, 1944, Kennedy underwent the first of four unsuccessful back surgeries he had three more procedures between 1954 and 1957 while he was a U.S. senator. His spinal surgeries, which included fusions of the lumbar vertebrae and the placement of metal plates, were complicated by poor wound healing, painful abscesses, and osteomyelitis (an infection of the bone). He was so ill at a few points during this period that his Catholic priest administered last rites. During a long period of recuperation in 1956, he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage,” with the help of his eloquent speechwriter Theodore Sorenson.

Almost every day of Kennedy’s adult life, he experienced debilitating back pain, especially in the lumbar spine and the sacroiliac joints. Many times, his back was so stiff from pain and arthritis that he could not even bend over to tie his shoes. Few people who live free of this disability understand how badly it affects one’s life. Still, Kennedy soldiered on to make his indelible mark on the world — until his assassination.

Some physicians have argued that the rigid back brace he wore while sitting in the presidential limousine on Nov. 22, 1963, contributed to his death. After the first, non-fatal gunshot struck him, Kennedy was unable to bend down. Instead of crumpling to the bottom of the car, the stiff brace held him upright and he remained in Oswald’s gun sight so that the killer was able to shoot the president in the head.

Yet Kennedy’s most serious health issue was Addison’s disease. This is an insufficiency of the adrenal glands, the organs which produce the vital hormones that help control sodium, potassium, and glucose levels in the blood, and mediate the body’s reactions to stress. Addison’s disease patients often begin their illness by experiencing severe diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue and low blood pressure. If left untreated, it is a life-threatening disease. Since the late 1930s, doctors have been able to manage this serious illness with the prescription of corticosteroids, which, according to his biographer Robert Dallek, Kennedy probably began taking in one form or another since at least 1947, when he was officially diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency. Some reports, however, claim he may have taken the medication earlier. The chronic use of steroids over his lifetime likely caused osteoporosis of various bones in his body, most notably his spine, where he suffered from three fractured vertebrae.

During his presidency, Kennedy was also treated with a slew of opiate pain killers, local anesthetic (lidocaine) shots for his back pain, tranquilizers such as Librium, amphetamines and stimulants, including Ritalin, thyroid hormones, barbiturate sleeping pills, gamma globulin to stave off infections, as well as the steroid hormones he needed to keep his adrenal insufficiency at bay. According to The New York Times, during the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962, the president was prescribed “antispasmodics to control colitis antibiotics for a urinary infection and increased amounts of hydrocortisone and testosterone along with salt tablets to control his adrenal insufficiency and boost his energy.”

In his 1965 book “A Thousand Days,” the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described an interview with Kennedy in July of 1959, in which he asked the U.S. senator about the rumors of his having Addison’s disease. Kennedy, who was about to run for president, confidently told Schlesinger, “No one who has the real Addison’s disease should run for the presidency, but I do not have it.”

Here, Kennedy was being both a duplicitous politician and an astute historian of medicine. In 1855, Thomas Addison, the senior physician to London’s Guy’s Hospital, published his treatise, “On the Constitutional and Local Effects of Disease of the Suprarenal Capsules.” The adrenal insufficiency of the six patients he described in this publication was caused by a destructive and infectious tuberculosis of the adrenal glands. Kennedy had adrenal insufficiency of an unknown cause but he was not in any way, shape or form, infected with tuberculosis. So, technically, he did not have “real Addison’s disease.”

Such verbal flim-flam recalls a mordant observation often attributed to our 35th president: “Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president, but they don’t want them to become politicians in the process.”

Left: President John F. Kennedy. Photo by Gerald L French/Corbis via Getty Images

Photos of Jackie and John F Kennedy Through The Years

The legacy of first couple John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy (née Bouvier) is an indelible part of American cultural and political history. The couple were first introduced at a dinner party in Washington in 1952, when Kennedy was a democratic congressman and Bouvier was working as a photographer at the Washington Times-Herald, and were married a year later. Here's a glimpse at the couple through the years, from their early days to the day of Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier sit together in the sunshine at Kennedy's family home at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a few months before their wedding. The couple met at a dinner party in Washington in 1952, when Kennedy was a Congressman and Jackie was working as a photographer at the Washington Times-Herald.

Senator John F. Kennedy and fiance Jacqueline Bouvier are interviewed for a LIFE Magazine story while on vacation at the Kennedy compound in June 1953 in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Senator John Kennedy and his fiancee Jacqueline Bouvier play tennis during their vacation in the summer of 1953, a few months before their wedding.

Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts is shown with his fiancee, Jacqueline Bouvier, as the couple adjusts the rigging on a boat during a vacation at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Senator John F. Kennedy and fiance Jacqueline Bouvier go sailing while on vacation at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Miss Jacqueline Lee Bouvier are pictured shortly after their engagement was announced. The couple are at the Kennedy Compound, which sits along Nantucket Sound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Jacqueline Bouvier wears a Battenburg wedding dress beside her new husband, Senator John Kennedy, as they stand in front of a Rhode Island church after their wedding ceremony.

Ex-ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy kisses his new daughter-in-law Jackie Kennedy on the cheek during her wedding reception in Newport, Rhode Island as the bridegroom, Senator John F. Kennedy looks on.

Senator John F Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier cut their wedding cake after their marriage in Newport, Rhode Island.

Senator John F. Kennedy and his bride, the former Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, cut their wedding cake the day after their marriage at St. Mary's Church in Newport, Rhode Island.

Newlyweds Senator John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy (née Bouvier) are pictured studying together after dinner.

Portrait of Senator John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy are pictured with their four-month-old daughter (and future United States Ambassador to Japan), Caroline Kennedy.

Senator John F. Kennedy announced officially that he would seek the 1960 Democratic Presidential nomination on this date. In his announcement made in the jammed Senate Caucus Room, he said he is confident in his ability to "win both the nomination and the election." Eleven months later, he was proved correct.

Senator John F Kennedy relaxes with his wife Jackie and their daughter Caroline.

Presidential hopeful Senator John F. Kennedy waves to a crowd alongside his wife Jackie at Logan Airport, Boston, Massachusetts, during a campaign tour in September 1960.

Future First Lady Jackie Kennedy and her husband, future US President John F. Kennedy, smile and wave to supporters while on a campaign stop in New York, New York, October 1960.

President-elect John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy pose with JFK's mother Rose Kennedy (left), on the morning after his Election Day victory.

Portrait of members of the Kennedy family at their home on the night after John F. Kennedy won the 1960 US Presidential election, Sitting, from left, Eunice Shriver (on chair arm), Rose Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy (on chair arm), Jacqueline Kennedy (head turned away from camera), and Ted Kennedy. Back row, from left, Ethel Kennedy, Stephen Smith, Jean Smith, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Pat Lawford, Sargent Shriver, Joan Kennedy, and Peter Lawford.

President-elect John F Kennedy with his wife Jacqueline, at the christening of their son John Fitzgerald Kennedy junior.

President-elect John Kennedy pointing to his left as he stands next to his wife Jacqueline, who is seated in the Presidential box overlooking the crowd attending his Inaugural Ball.

John F Kennedy taking the Oath of Office administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren (left). James Browning, Clerk of the Supreme Court, is centre and Jackie Kennedy is far left.

Newly elected president John F Kennedy rides with his wife Jacqueline in the Inaugural Parade.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy on the day of his Inauguration.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy stands with her husband, and President John F. Kennedy in the door of the White House, Washington, DC shortly after his inauguration.

President John F. Kennedy fixes his wife Jackie's wind-blown hair as they ride in a convertible between Blair House and the White House. They had just met President Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba of Tunisia and his wife. Bourguiba is in Washington for talks with government leaders.

During their European tour, President John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy arrive at Elysee Palace in Paris to meet the French President, Charles de Gaulle.

President John F Kennedy with wife Jacqueline Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at London's Admiralty House, on the second day of their visit to London, England in 1961. The President and Prime Minister met to review the world situation following Kennedys talks with Chairman Khruschev in Vienna two days earlier.

At Buckingham Palace during a banquet held in his honor, American President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy pose with Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain (second right) and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (left). Mrs. Kennedy's dress was designed by Chez Ninon while the Queen wore a Hartnell gown.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy stands before a dining room table in the White House during the filming of the now-iconic CBS News Special program "'A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy". The program saw Jackie taking CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood on a tour of the White House and showing off its brand new restoration, a project which she had personally overseen.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy attend a dinner in honor of Minister of State for Cultural Affairs of France, Andre Malroux (left).

Recently declassified files show that in addition to protecting Almeida, agencies from the CIA to the FBI to Naval Intelligence also withheld information to hide their own intelligence failures and domestic surveillance operations, as well as to protect the reputations of their own agencies and key officials. Santayana said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That is certainly true in this case since, as the following examples show, that is true in this case since all the secrecy has impacted US domestic and foreign policy for decades, and continues to do so.

Published on Thursday, October 19, 2006 by

The US government has finally made available to the public the biggest secret of JFK's presidency: In November 1963, JFK was secretly working with the #3 official in Cuba -- Commander Juan Almeida, head of the Cuban Army -- to stage a "palace coup" against Fidel Castro. Even today, the CIA currently lists Almeida as the #3 official in Cuba, just behind Raul Castro. The fact that Almeida remained unexposed and high in the Cuban government for decades is a primary reason that over four million pages of JFK assassination files were kept secret until the late 1990s.

Almeida's revelation removes the last legitimate reason for keeping any of the JFK files secret. Even though their release was required by the 1992 JFK Act -- passed unanimously by Congress, due to the efforts of Senators like John Kerry and Christopher Dodd -- "well over a million CIA records" about the assassination remain secret until 2017. The Secret Service admitted destroying key records in 1995, three years after the law was passed, an incident that has never been investigated by Congress. And in late September 2006, a federal judge ignored the JFK Act when he threw out a lawsuit by a Washington Post reporter seeking files about Oswald, which the CIA had lied about withholding from the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations (which included then-Congressman Dodd).

Recently declassified files show that in addition to protecting Almeida, agencies from the CIA to the FBI to Naval Intelligence also withheld information to hide their own intelligence failures and domestic surveillance operations, as well as to protect the reputations of their own agencies and key officials. Santayana said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That is certainly true in this case since, as the following examples show, that is true in this case since all the secrecy has impacted US domestic and foreign policy for decades, and continues to do so.

  • The JFK-Almeida coup plan (codenamed AMWORLD by the CIA) came about because of the failure to resolved the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As JFK's Secretary of State Dean Rusk revealed to us -- and files later confirmed -- JFK's pledge not to invade Cuba never took effect because of Fidel's refusal to allow "UN inspections" for "weapons of mass destruction" that were part of JFK's deal with the Soviets to end the crisis. JFK, not Bush, was the first president to use those terms -- and to suffer tragic consequences because problems with such inspections led to an attempt to overthrow a foreign dictator.
  • The JFK-Almeida coup failed because it was infiltrated by three Mafia bosses targeted for prosecution by Attorney General Robert Kennedy (who played the leading role in managing the coup plan for his brother). The Mafia chiefs -- banned by the Kennedys from the coup plan, and from reopening their casinos in Cuba -- infiltrated the CIA's portion of the coup plan, and used parts of it to kill JFK in Dallas. This forced key US officials -- RFK, LBJ, and J. Edgar Hoover -- into a cover-up to protect Almeida and prevent a possible nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, a cover-up which continued for decades.
  • The Mafia bosses infiltrated the JFK-Almeida coup plan using contacts established during Richard Nixon's first "October Surprise," in 1960. The CIA admits it was working with the Mafia chiefs at that time, in an attempt to assassinate Fidel just before the 1960 election between Nixon and JFK. Unknown to JFK, the CIA continued using the Mafia bosses in their own anti-Castro operations into October and November of 1963, giving the mobsters a way to infiltrate JFK's coup plan with Almeida.
  • Robert Kennedy knew who killed his brother, and even told associates about the leading role of New Orleans godfather Carlos Marcello. But RFK couldn't tell the Warren Commission or the public -- or even allow a thorough investigation -- without endangering Almeida and risking World War III. The FBI finally got a detailed confession from Marcello in 1985 when he was in prison, thanks to a trusted FBI informant deemed credible by a Federal judge. But the FBI and the Reagan-Bush Justice Department withheld it from the public. They also refused to prosecute Marcello for numerous crimes the godfather confessed to on hundreds of hours of tapes generated by a court-authorized bug in his prison cell. This allowed Marcello to go free, after he was released from prison on a technicality. All of those 1985 tapes are still being withheld more than a decade after the godfather's death.
  • The JFK-Almeida coup plan -- and the Mafia's infiltration of it -- was withheld from the Warren Commission and at least six Congressional Committees, and some of those involved are still active in politics. Current Senator Arlen Specter was the Warren Commission attorney who dealt with two JFK aides who said they were pressured to alter their testimony about seeing shots from the grassy knoll "for the good of the country."
  • A dozen veterans of the JFK-Almeida coup plan -- and the Mafia's infiltration of it -- were involved in Watergate, though it was withheld from Congress and Justice Department prosecutors (including Ben-Veniste, later a member of the 9-11 Commission). At that time, Robert Bennett -- now a Senator from Utah -- had employed one of those veterans and was feeding information to Bob Woodward to protect the CIA.
  • Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were key officials in the Ford Administration -- and George H. W. Bush was CIA Director -- when information about the Mafia's infiltration of the JFK-Almeida coup plan was withheld from the Senate Church Committee (including Gary Hart and Walter Mondale) and Congress's Pike Committee.
  • Several veterans of the JFK-Almeida coup plan later surfaced in Iran-Contra, during the Reagan-Bush Administration. Some were involved with then-US Ambassador John Negroponte, currently the National Intelligence Director. But relevant information about the JFK-Almeida coup plan and the Mafia's infiltration of it was withheld from the Iran-Contra Committee (co-chaired by Lee Hamilton, later a member of the 9-11 Commission), and Senator John Kerry's Subcommittee on Narcotics.
  • Even after Kerry and Dodd helped to spearhead the 1992 JFK Act, the CIA and other agencies continued to withhold key information. US military and CIA veterans of the JFK-Almeida coup plan began a new outreach to high Cuban military officials in the mid-1990s. While those in the US military seemed sincere, this outreach would also allow the CIA to claim the 1963 files couldn't be released because the same people were still involved in the same type of active, ongoing operation.
  • In the 1990s, numerous US coup attempts against Saddam failed for the same basic reason the JFK-Almeida coup plan failed (and one even resulted in an assassination attempt against President George H. W. Bush). Likewise, several of the key intelligence failures by the Bush Administration, the CIA, and the FBI in the months before 9-11 mirror those in declassified files about the 1963 intelligence failures that preceded JFK's assassination. But because of all the secrecy, those failures were never exposed. The lessons of history couldn't be learned, so the same agencies kept making the same mistakes -- and history kept repeating itself.

That will continue to be the tragic case, unless the public demands that Congress no longer allow the agencies and the courts to ignore the 1992 JFK Act. It's not just a partisan issue. Rep. Christopher Shays was the first member of Congress to acknowledge the files that are still being withheld, in the March 14, 2006 hearings of his National Security Subcommittee. Now that the US government has declassified Commander Almeida's secret work for JFK, there is no legitimate reason to withhold the "well over a million CIA records" and not to investigate the files the Secret Service and other agencies admit destroying.

As for Almeida, both RFK and the CIA were certain he was sincere in 1963 and not a double agent, and the evidence backs that up. Fidel only learned about Almeida's work for JFK in 1990, after which Almeida disappeared for several years. Fidel allowed him to rejoin the Cuban government because now -- as in 1963 -- he is one of the highest Black officials in Cuba, an important consideration in a country where some estimate that seventy percent of the population is of African descent. Almeida's family is safe because after RFK and the CIA helped them leave Cuba on a pretext in the fall of 1963, they never returned to Cuba to live.

Because Almeida's family and his work for JFK have been officially declassified, we can now tell the full story of the JFK-Almeida coup -- and its penetration by Marcello -- in the new, updated trade paperback edition of our book Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba, and the Murder of JFK. As it details, there was not a large conspiracy that killed JFK -- none of those named in this article were involved, except Marcello -- but there was a big effort to protect Almeida and to cover-up information that could harm the reputations of agencies and key officials.

With the publicity surrounding the release of the JFK-Almeida coup plan, this may be America's last chance to get the files JFK released before the year 2017 (when all the files are supposed to be released). With every member of Congress -- and a third of the Senate -- up for re-election, is there any reason to vote for a candidate who doesn't want to see the law enforced and all the JFK files released?

The Medical Ordeals of JFK

The core of the Kennedy image was, in many respects, a lie. A presidential biographer, granted access to medical files, portrays a man far sicker than the public knew.

The lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history—no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed. Kennedy, like so many of his predecessors, was more intent on winning the presidency than on revealing himself to the public. On one level this secrecy can be taken as another stain on his oft-criticized character, a deception maintained at the potential expense of the citizens he was elected to lead. Yet there is another way of viewing the silence regarding his health—as the quiet stoicism of a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain and distress and performing his presidential (and pre-presidential) duties largely undeterred by his physical suffering. Does this not also speak to his character, but in a more complex way? …

Evidence of Kennedy’s medical problems has been trickling out for years. In 1960, during the fight for the Democratic nomination, John Connally and India Edwards, aides to Lyndon B. Johnson, told the press—correctly—that Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, a condition of the adrenal glands characterized by a deficiency of the hormones needed to regulate blood sugar, sodium and potassium, and the response to stress. They described the problem as life-threatening and requiring regular doses of cortisone. The Kennedys publicly denied the allegation …

It appears that Richard Nixon may have tried at one point to gain access to Kennedy’s medical history. In the fall of 1960, as he and JFK battled in what turned out to be one of the closest presidential elections ever, thieves ransacked the office of Eugene J. Cohen, a New York endocrinologist who had been treating Kennedy for Addison’s disease. When they failed to find Kennedy’s records, which were filed under a code name, they tried unsuccessfully to break into the office of Janet Travell, an internist and pharmacologist who had been relieving Kennedy’s back pain with injections of procaine (an agent similar to lidocaine). Although the thieves remain unidentified, it is reasonable to speculate that they were Nixon operatives the failed robberies have the aura of Watergate and of the break-in at the Beverly Hills office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

Using personal letters, Navy records, and oral histories, biographers and historians over the past 20 years have begun to fill in a picture of Jack Kennedy as ill and ailment-ridden for his entire life—a far cry from the paragon of vigor (or “vigah,” in the family’s distinctive Massachusetts accent) that the Kennedys presented. After a sickly childhood he spent significant periods during his prep-school and college years in the hospital for severe intestinal ailments, infections, and what doctors thought for a time was leukemia. He suffered from ulcers and colitis as well as Addison’s disease, which necessitated the administration of regular steroid treatments. And it has been known for some time that Kennedy endured terrible back trouble. He wrote his book Profiles in Courage while recovering from back surgery in 1954 that almost killed him.

But the full extent of Kennedy’s medical ordeals has not been known until now. Earlier this year a small committee of Kennedy-administration friends and associates agreed to open a collection of his papers for the years 1955–63. I was given access to these newly released materials, which included X-rays and prescription records from Janet Travell’s files. Together with recent research and a growing understanding of medical science, the newly available records allow us to construct an authoritative account of JFK’s medical tribulations. And they add telling detail to a story of lifelong suffering, revealing that many of the various treatments doctors gave Kennedy, starting when he was a boy, did far more harm than good. In particular, steroid treatments that he may have received as a young man for his intestinal ailments could have compounded—and perhaps even caused—both the Addison’s disease and the degenerative back trouble that plagued him later in life. Travell’s prescription records also confirm that during his presidency—and in particular during times of stress, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in April of 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis, in October of 1962—Kennedy was taking an extraordinary variety of medications: steroids for his Addison’s disease painkillers for his back anti-spasmodics for his colitis antibiotics for urinary-tract infections antihistamines for allergies and, on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic (though only for two days) for a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed had been brought on by the antihistamines.

Kennedy’s charismatic appeal rested heavily on the image of youthful energy and good health he projected. This image was a myth. The real story, disconcerting though it would have been to contemplate at the time, is actually more heroic. It is a story of iron-willed fortitude in mastering the difficulties of chronic illness …

Kennedy’s collective health problems were not enough to deter him from running for president. Though they were a considerable burden, no one of them impressed him as life-threatening. Nor did he believe that the many medications he took would reduce his ability to work effectively on the contrary, he saw them as ensuring his competence to deal with the demands of the office. And apparently none of his many doctors told him that were he elevated to the presidency, his health problems (or the treatments for them) could pose a danger to the country.

After reaching the White House, Kennedy believed it was more essential than ever to hide his afflictions. The day after his election, in response to a reporter’s question, he declared himself in “excellent” shape and dismissed the rumors of Addison’s disease as false …

A Thousand Days of Suffering

During his time in the White House, despite public indications of continuing back difficulties, Kennedy enjoyed an image of robust good health. But according to the Travell records, medical attention was a fixed part of his routine. He was under the care of an allergist, an endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, an orthopedist, and a urologist, along with that of Janet Travell, Admiral George Burkley, and Max Jacobson, an émigré doctor from Germany who now lived in New York and had made a reputation by treating celebrities with “pep pills,” or amphetamines, that helped to combat depression and fatigue. Jacobson, whom patients called “Dr. Feelgood,” administered amphetamines and back injections of painkillers that JFK believed made him less dependent on crutches …

The Travell records reveal that during the first six months of his term, Kennedy suffered stomach, colon, and prostate problems, high fevers, occasional dehydration, abscesses, sleeplessness, and high cholesterol, in addition to his ongoing back and adrenal ailments. His physicians administered large doses of so many drugs that Travell kept a “Medicine Administration Record,” cataloguing injected and ingested corticosteroids for his adrenal insufficiency procaine shots and ultrasound treatments and hot packs for his back Lomotil, Metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss penicillin and other antibiotics for his urinary-tract infections and an abscess and Tuinal to help him sleep. Before press conferences and nationally televised speeches his doctors increased his cortisone dose to deal with tensions harmful to someone unable to produce his own corticosteroids in response to stress. Though the medications occasionally made Kennedy groggy and tired, he did not see them as a problem. He dismissed questions about Jacobson’s injections, saying, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works” …

Kennedy continued to need extensive medication. His condition at the time of the Cuban missile crisis is a case in point. The Travell records show that during the 13 days in October of 1962 when Moscow and Washington brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, Kennedy took his usual doses of anti-spasmodics to control his colitis, antibiotics for a flare-up of his urinary-tract problem and a bout of sinusitis, and increased amounts of hydrocortisone and testosterone, along with salt tablets, to control his Addison’s disease and boost his energy. Judging from the tape recordings made of conversations during this time, the medications were no impediment to lucid thought during these long days on the contrary, Kennedy would have been significantly less effective without them, and might even have been unable to function. But these medications were only one element in helping Kennedy to focus on the crisis his extraordinary strength of will cannot be underestimated.

This is not to suggest that Kennedy was superhuman, or to exaggerate his ability to endure physical and emotional ills. On November 2, 1962, he took 10 additional milligrams of hydrocortisone and 10 grains of salt to boost himself before giving a brief report to the American people on the dismantling of the Soviet missile bases in Cuba. In December, Jackie complained to the president’s gastroenterologist, Russell Boles, that the antihistamines for food allergies had a “depressing action” on the president. She asked Boles to prescribe something that would assure “mood elevation without irritation to the gastrointestinal tract.” The Travell records reveal that Boles prescribed one milligram twice a day of Stelazine, an anti-psychotic that was also used as a treatment for anxiety. In two days, Kennedy showed marked improvement, and he apparently never needed the drug again …

Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy before the president’s medical ailments could. But the evidence suggests that Kennedy’s physical condition contributed to his demise. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was, as always, wearing a corsetlike back brace as he rode through Dallas. Oswald’s first bullet struck him in the back of the neck. Were it not for the back brace, which held him erect, the second, fatal shot to the head might not have found its mark.

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