In this Jan. 18, 1962 file photo, U.S. President John F. Kennedy looks over notes at his desk in the White House. (AP Photo/Henry Burroughs)
His Pulitzer Prize-winning tribute to political risk and bipartisan statesmanship, “Profiles in Courage,” was shadowed by reports that he didn’t write it, and the book’s authorship remains a subject of debate. Lyndon Johnson, eventually his vice president, spread rumors (later confirmed) that Kennedy suffered from a glandular disorder, Addison’s disease. An authorized campaign biography by James MacGregor Burns angered the family when the historian questioned whether JFK was independent of his father and of the memory of his older brother.
“I think you underestimate him,” Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Burns. “Jack is a strong and self-sufficient person. If we could just lay to rest those bromides about Dad and Brother Joe. Let me assure you that no matter how many older brothers and fathers my husband had had, he would have been what he is today, or the equivalent in another field.”
One of the last presidents to live during an age when private vices were kept private, he was at ease around such photographers as Jacques Lowe and around the crew of documentary maker Robert Drew, whose Kennedy projects included the landmark of cinema verite “Primary” and the film “Crisis,” about the 1963 standoff against Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace. Award-winning filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, who assisted Drew on the Kennedy documentaries, remembered spending hours in the Oval Office and once being offered a ride in the presidential car.
“I got in the front seat and filmed into the back seat,” Pennebaker said. “He was going over something that had happened at the United Nations and was using all these four-letter words, just using unbelievable language. Later on, someone said to me, ‘I can’t believe you can just film him like that.’ But there was no way I was ever going to use it. That was the kind of relationship we had.”
Andrew Ball, senior historian at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, noted that the first decade after Kennedy’s assassination was defined by the stately “Camelot school” of biography, including former JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Thousand Days.”
But starting in the 1970s, in the post-Watergate era, the Kennedy image was challenged by the findings of congressional committees, by a wave of gossipy best-sellers and by one of the great investigative reporters, Seymour Hersh. His “The Dark Side of Camelot” detailed Kennedy’s many sexual affairs, alleged connections to organized crime and attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. When the book came out in 1997, New York Times reviewer Thomas Powers said Hersh’s “copious new detail often makes for painful reading,” which “can’t honestly be ignored.”
But during a recent interview, Hersh acknowledged that Kennedy’s reputation was intact and that if he’d known the president personally, he might have been charmed, too.
“We like him. He was a cool guy, no question about it,” Hersh said. “But he also had a dark side, a really dark side that many people knew about and didn’t want to talk about.”
Kennedy scandals often run through a cycle of revulsion, then acceptance, even rationalization. Last year, Kennedy was the subject of a best-selling memoir by former White House intern Mimi Alford, an explicit account of the president’s extramarital behavior.
Laurence Leamer, author of “The Kennedy Men” and “The Kennedy Women,” said Alford’s story “sickened” him and made him wonder: “How can you bring that into the picture and feel the same way about him?” Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court” is a sympathetic book that mentions the Alford affair.
“His frenetic need for conquests was not the behavior of a sexual athlete,” Dallek writes. “It was not the sex act that seemed to drive his pursuit of so many women, but the constant need for reaffirmation, or a desire for affection and approval, however transitory, from his casual trysts. It is easy to imagine that Jack was principally responding to feelings of childhood emptiness stemming from a detached mother and an absent father.”
Dallek has learned as much about Kennedy as any living historian. A decade ago, his “An Unfinished Life” was a landmark biography that revealed Kennedy’s health problems were far more extensive than what was reported in his lifetime. Drawing on medical records long kept sealed by the family, Dallek wrote that Kennedy, who had called himself “the healthiest candidate for president,” suffered from a wide variety of ailments and had been prescribed everything from antibiotics to painkillers to antidepressants.
“Schlesinger actually found my revelations interesting,” Dallek says, “because they showed Kennedy was a man who struggled mightily with these health problems and yet was so stoic and effective.”
Previous biographers had failed to receive permission from a three-man board that included former JFK speechwriter and longtime loyalist Theodore Sorensen, who died in 2010. Dallek’s reputation as a fair-minded historian made the difference.
“My argument was, ‘Look, it’s been 40 years and the health records are in the library vaults. What’s the point of keeping them closed forever?’” Dallek told The Associated Press. “They agreed, but Sorensen was resistant and so I went to New York and spent two hours with him in his apartment. Afterwards, he was frustrated because I said there was a cover-up and he said there was no cover-up. But there was a cover-up.”
Tom Putnam, director of the Kennedy presidential library, said the family had become much more willing to make materials available. He and Nasaw cite as a turning point the decision years ago by JFK siblings Sen. Edward Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver to allow the historian full access to their father’s papers. Publications in recent years include White House tapes, notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s memories of her husband’s administration, recorded in 1964.
Major additions to Kennedy’s story are unlikely, though Dallek says he is still trying to gain access to some tapes from the Kennedy White House and to boxes of Robert Kennedy’s papers. Putnam said the library was working “dutifully” to make all material available.
“Sometimes things are closed for personal privacy reasons or documents may have to be declassified. That’s standard in the archive community,” he said. “But we have opened everything we can. There is no secret room at the library where we keep this hidden trove of materials.”