The short, unpleasant life of John F. Kennedy

  • Article by: JASON LEWIS
  • Updated: January 21, 2012 - 3:45 PM

Uncovered history shows us that the 35th president was a man of both elusive and courageous nature.

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President John F. Kennedy

Fifty one years after a young president from Massachusetts delivered a stirring inaugural address on a frigid day in the nation's capital, contemporary politicians still aspire to the Kennedy mystique.

It's easy to see why. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was first in a dawning media age to make a profession dominated by an old guard of aging men ... well, cool.

The adoration for JFK was not a matter of being drawn to an ideological soulmate (Kennedy's convictions were always elusive -- he once told a journalist he didn't read a story about Barry Goldwater because he wasn't concerned with challengers "who say they would rather be right than be president") nor was it the homespun attraction to an elderly father figure. Kennedy had the enigma of star quality, with just a touch of danger.

So it's not surprising that as the years have passed since the tragedy in Dallas, both ends of the political spectrum have claimed the martyred 35th president as their own.

The right likes to point to the tax-cutting anticommunist as a model for the mainstream Democrat before the 1960s got a hold of the party. But Kennedy, of course, was the '60s.

Though Byron (Whizzer) White was indeed mainstream, JFK's appointment of Arthur Goldberg helped put the Supreme Court on a collision course with traditional precedent, especially in the arena of newfound "privacy rights" and abortion.

Even his much touted supply-side tax cut (passed posthumously) for the rich was, in the mind of its architect, Keynesianism in drag. After the president's famous speech to the conservative Economic Club of New York, Kennedy told an aide, "I gave them straight Keynes and Heller, and they loved it." What the administration loved about it was its deficit spending, not the beneficial effects of cutting taxes on the margin.

Kennedy had long championed higher federal spending, especially on health care, and his 1962 executive order establishing collective bargaining "rights" for federal employees was pure political pandering and has as much to do with today's bloated bureaucracy as anything.

Yet it's also true that JFK was far less than the "liberal lion" that his younger brother, Ted, would turn out to be. He enjoyed the company of conservatives, including Goldwater, and had great admiration for his freshman colleague in the House from California, Richard Nixon.

As Chris Matthews points out in his new book "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero," JFK thought Nixon "brilliant" and the smartest member of the incoming class. In fact, the young Democratic congressman would later hand-deliver a $1,000 check from his father for Nixon's 1950 Senate run.

As president, Kennedy also rejected quotas and, according to critics, demurred on civil rights. And despite the conspiracy theorists, JFK was not assassinated for an incipient plan to remove all American forces from southeast Asia.

In September 1963, he told Walter Cronkite that while the war in Vietnam must be won by the South Vietnamese, "I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake ... a great mistake."

Kennedy had run as a national security hawk, but his early missteps in the Bay of Pigs and perhaps more importantly at the Vienna Summit -- where Nikita Khrushchev humiliated the young president -- prompted the Soviet premier to challenge the United States by erecting the Berlin Wall and attempting to put missiles in Cuba. Ironically, a reluctance to use military power would wind up serving Kennedy well in both situations.

That's something that Matthews' book -- one part hagiography, one part riveting history -- makes abundantly clear. (For a grittier take on the 35th president, check out fellow liberal Richard Reeves' "President Kennedy: Profile in Power.") The president's wartime experience in the South Pacific left him "loving courage, but hating war."

Yet the kind of bravery Matthews describes goes beyond the PT-109 version (cynics still wonder why Lt. Kennedy's boat was the only one in the war sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer, though his valor in the aftermath is unquestioned) to touch on a more pedestrian form of everyday courage that in Kennedy's case required an unimaginable effort to overcome.

Despite the luxury of wealth and for all the frat-boy shenanigans, Kennedy lived a life that was grotesquely marred by a Hobbesian existence -- short and brutish. That was a tragedy that would befall the entire family, but JFK was unique in how well he put up a brave front while simultaneously dealing with constant pain and the near-certainty of an early death due to his critically weakened body -- a condition so cleverly contained by his handlers.

Detractors say that JFK was compromised in office, and that may well be true, but beyond the charismatic deception of "vigor" and a less-than-stellar -- if unfinished -- tenure in office, there remains a sort of stoic dignity in Kennedy's pursuit of public life while bearing the burden in silence. And bear it he did. It's fair to say the severity of Kennedy's ailments were only surpassed by their frequency. The man was a walking cadaver.

JFK was secretly hospitalized in dozens of instances, was given last rites three times and was essentially kept alive, according to Reeves, by "complicated daily combinations of pills and injections".

There were massive amounts of cortisone injections to fight off Addison's disease, a life-threatening ailment at the time; more steroids for a prewar back condition that resulted in spinal fusions and botched surgeries (he was wearing a back brace the day he died); a chronic stomach condition, most likely ulcerative colitis, that kept Kennedy in agony and battling debilitating bouts of diarrhea; painkillers, hormones, stimulants, sleeping pills, and a cholesterol count somewhere around 400.

Jaundiced and bedridden as a young man, Kennedy would suffer from frequent infections the rest of this life and, as Matthews reveals, the absence of a mother's love. Jacqueline Kennedy, just months after the president's death, told historian and confidante Arthur Schlesinger that when she once asked her husband if he could have one wish, what would it be, he ruefully responded, "I wish I had more good times."

Here was the man who had everything but owned very little. And yet, by most accounts, he rarely complained, managed to govern and refused to be incapacitated. He persevered.

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Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk-show host based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and is the author of "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights" from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard from 5 to 8 p.m. weekdays on NewsTalk Radio (1130 AM) or online at jasonlewisshow.com.

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