December 31, 1962
What makes journalism so fascinating, and biography so interesting [is] the struggle to answer that single question: “What’s he like.”
—John F. Kennedy
Elaine de Kooning, a garrulous, promiscuous, hard-drinking Greenwich Village bohemian who had flirted with communism and championed the death-row inmate Caryl Chessman, came to the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach on the morning of December 31, 1962, to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy for the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The artist William Walton, a close friend of the president and First Lady, had recommended her because he knew that Kennedy was too restless to tolerate a formal sitting and expected that de Kooning, who was known as “The Fastest Brush in the East,” could finish a portrait after a single session. After years of working in the shadow of her estranged husband, the famous abstract artist Willem de Kooning, she had earned a reputation as a figurative expressionist who could capture the essence of a subject in the vivid colors and bold brushstrokes of abstract art, and Walton and the Truman Library trustees were undoubtedly expecting a portrait like her celebrated take on the painter Robert De Niro, Sr. (father of the actor Robert De Niro), praised by one dealer as “a stunning resemblance that expresses so much character in a nearly abstract painting.”
She arrived to find Kennedy huddled on the patio with reporters and had trouble picking him out. She had expected, she said, the “gray, sculptural” man of the newspaper photographs. Instead, he was “incandescent, golden” and “bigger than life,” no taller than the other men, but inhabiting “a different dimension.” She had planned on making some quick sketches and finishing the portrait in the temporary studio she had established in an abandoned West Palm Beach theater. But after a morning with him, she decided he was too intriguing and changeable a subject for a single sitting to suffice and stayed four days. She perched on a ladder above him, sat on a stool opposite him, or stood at an easel, watching as he nervously riffled through papers, patted his hair, and crossed and uncrossed his legs. Phones rang; aides hurried across the flagstone patio; his son, John Jr., tossed pebbles into the swimming pool; and his daughter, Caroline, appeared and stood next to de Kooning with her own easel, sketching him until he came over and drew a cat on her pad.
De Kooning drew him sitting and standing, full face and in profile, arms akimbo or folded over his chest, wearing dark glasses or squinting into the sun. She was a handsome and lively woman whose wit was as quick as her brush. They joked, flirted, and he threw a leg over the arm of a chair, putting his crotch at the center of her sketch and asking, “Is this pose all right?”
“Well, it’s supposed to be an official portrait,” she said.
He smiled and held the pose.
She thought, I’ll take what I get, and kept working.
She papered the theater with sketches, charcoals, and watercolors, and worked late into the night. The more she drew him, the more he fascinated her, and frustrated her attempts to capture his essence in a single portrait. She began working on several canvases at once. She was intrigued by his “transparent ruddiness,” how his smile and frown both appeared “built-in to the bone,” “the curious faceted structure of light over his face and hair,” and the way this contributed to his “extraordinary variety of expressions.” She was mesmerized by his eyes—“incredible eyes with large violet irises half veiled by the jutting bone beneath his eyebrows”—and liked the way he instinctively assumed “the graceful positions of a college athlete.” She told friends she was “in love with his mind” and captivated “by the idea of such a gallant, intelligent, handsome man leading the country and the world.” She also admitted falling “a teeny little bit in love with him.”
She returned to New York with dozens of sketches and uncompleted portraits. Soon there were more. She realized that she had seen only one facet of him while his staff saw another, as did a public that saw him only on a two-dimensional television screen or in a photograph. She began sketching him when he appeared on television, and clipping his photographs from newspapers and magazines, tacking them to her walls and using them as models for more drawings and oils. Soon she was painting only him.
Walton visited her studio in early November 1963 to find photographs and sketches of Kennedy scattered across the floor, and the walls covered with so many of her studies that she had to climb a ladder to reach them all. Thirty-eight oils between two and eleven feet high and in various stages of completion leaned against walls and sat on easels. He was larger than life and smaller, youthful and athletic, mature and reserved, wearing a two-button suit or polo shirt, standing or sitting in the eye of a hurricane of vibrant colors. After running out of space, she had papered her living quarters with more sketches and photographs so that whenever she cooked, ate, took a bath, used the toilet, or made love, she saw him. A photograph shows her surrounded by photographs, drawings, and oils, as if trapped in a maze of mirrors reflecting and re-reflecting his image. It was testimony to the difficulty and vastness of the task she had assumed: capturing the essence of one of the most complicated and enigmatic men ever to occupy the White House.
The playwright Robert Sherwood once spoke of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “heavily forested interior.” Kennedy’s was, by comparison, the heart of the Amazon. His friend and groomsman Edmund Gullion spoke of “a shrinking from ostentation or display or for revealing himself or letting go with his emotions that doesn’t give the chronicler much to go on.” Laura Bergquist of Look, who understood him better than any other female reporter, believed that no one “knew the total of him” and called him the “prismatic president” because of the way he cultivated people to serve different needs and play different roles. When she asked, “What does it feel like to be president?” he had nervously rubbed his ankles, fingered his tie, jumped up from his rocking chair, and paced around the room before saying, “Let’s go on to another question. I’m not very good at that couch talk.”
Ted Sorensen, who had been his principal aide and speechwriter for ten years but seldom socialized with him, decided that “different parts of his life, works, and thoughts were seen by many people—but no one saw it all,” adding, “He sometimes obscured his motives and almost always shielded his emotions.” After observing him during the 1960 campaign, the author Norman Mailer concluded that his most characteristic quality was “the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.” The journalist Charlie Bartlett, who had introduced him to Jackie, said flatly, “No one ever knew John Kennedy, not all of him.”
Because he compartmentalized his friends and family, parts of him remained hidden even to those who thought they knew him best. His brother Bobby was his attorney general and de facto assistant president, but when he and the former cabinet member Abraham Ribicoff went sailing off Palm Beach after Dallas, Ribicoff was shocked to find that he knew things about Jack that Bobby did not. The experience confirmed his sense that Kennedy was a “very introverted man” who had “kept a lot of things to himself,” and had “only exposed different facets of himself to different people.” He even bewildered Jackie, who called him “a simple man, yet so complex that he would frustrate anyone trying to understand him,” and “a romantic, although he didn’t like people to know that.” She concluded that “to reveal yourself is difficult and almost dangerous for people like that [the Kennedys]—I’d say Jack didn’t want to reveal himself at all.”
His fondness for secrecy contributed to his elusiveness. He took French lessons and swore his teacher to silence because he wanted to “surprise the world.” He sent a friend abroad as a clandestine emissary without informing the State Department, and asked a neighbor in Hyannis Port to run a parallel campaign organization, telling him to communicate via a post office box and coded address so that his secretary Evelyn Lincoln could give it to him directly, and “nobody else’s eyes will get to see it.”
His contradictory qualities were another barrier. He was a brass-knuckles politician and an idealist whose rhetoric encouraged nobility and sacrifice; a reckless driver but a cautious politician; a man who disliked close physical contact, even with his best friends, but who had a voracious sexual appetite. He was known for his wit and humanity, and for being chilly and remote. He gave the impression of being comfortable in his own skin, but he abhorred solitude. More than most presidents—more than most middle-aged men—he was a work in progress, a moving target for anyone trying to capture him on a canvas or in prose. The literary critic Alfred Kazin decided his most essential quality was “that of the man who is always making and remaking himself,” and called him “the final product of a fanatical job of self-remodeling.”
When Kennedy was a young man his father frequently told him, “Can’t you get it into your head that it’s not important what you really are? The only important thing is what people think you are!” He took this advice to heart, perhaps too much. Mailer wondered if his “elusive detachment” signified “the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.” Bergquist detected a vulnerability and insecurity, “not simply because he was part of the upward-mobile Irish, but because I think he recognized himself as an image that had been manufactured. And the question came up: ‘Who loves me and wants me for myself, and who loves me for what they think I am, and what I can do?’” While attempting to seduce a young Pulitzer Prize–winning historian in 1953 he had leaped up from a sofa, grabbed her by the shoulders, and exclaimed, “I’m sad; I’m gay; I’m melancholy; I’m gloomy—I’m all mixed up, and don’t know how I am!”
De Kooning’s obsession may have bordered on madness, but her approach was sound. She understood that to discover the essence of a man who compartmentalized his life, you had to look into all his compartments, and to paint a portrait of a prismatic president, you had to view him through every prism. The following attempts to do with words what she was attempting with paints: to view John F. Kennedy through every prism and search through all his compartments during the crucial last hundred days of his life—days that saw him finally beginning to realize his potential as a man and a president—in order to solve the most tantalizing mystery of all: not who killed him, but who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.
August 7–14, 1963
PROLOGUE TO THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS
Even though people may be well known, they still hold in their hearts the emotions of a simple person for the moments that are the most important of those we know on earth—birth, marriage, and death.
Wednesday, August 7–Saturday, August 10
WASHINGTON, CAPE COD, AND BOSTON
John F. Kennedy’s second son was born twenty years to the day after the Navy rescued Kennedy from the group of Pacific islands where he had been marooned for five days after a Japanese destroyer rammed his torpedo boat, PT 109, slamming him against the cockpit wall and killing two crewmen. The medal that he won for “courage, endurance, and excellent leadership” and “extremely heroic conduct” during these five days, and John Hersey’s account of his heroics in The New Yorker, became the early engines of his political career. He answered questions about his exploits with a self-deprecating “It was involuntary, they sank my boat,” but he arranged things so that seldom a moment passed without his eyes resting on some reminder of PT 109. When he looked across the Oval Office he saw a scale model of the boat on a shelf, and when he looked up from his papers he saw on his desk the coconut shell onto which he had carved his SOS: “Nauro Isl Commander—Native knows Pos’it—He can pilot 11 alive—Need small boat—Kennedy.” When he emerged from his helicopter at the family compound in Hyannis Port he heard his nieces and nephews chanting, “In ’forty-three, they went to sea! / Thirteen men and Kennedy! / To seek the blazing enemy!” and saw on the beach the dinghy he had christened PT 109½. Twice a day he swam the breaststroke in the White House pool, the same stroke he had used while towing a badly burned crewman through shark-infested waters for five hours, gripping the strap of his life preserver in his teeth. Every morning he fastened his tie with a metal clasp shaped like a torpedo boat with “PT 109” stamped on its bow, and because he had given copies of this clasp to his friends and aides, he saw it whenever they walked into his office. All of which may explain why Kennedy’s friend and fellow World War II naval veteran Ben Bradlee is certain that when Evelyn Lincoln hurried into the Oval Office at 11:43 a.m. on August 7, 1963, to report that Jackie had gone into premature labor on Cape Cod, there was “no way on God’s earth” that he did not think,My child is being born twenty years to the day after I was rescued, a coincidence providing an additional emotional dimension to a day that would be among his most traumatic.
Jackie had been scheduled for a cesarean section at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Hospital in September, but because John Kennedy, Jr., had arrived prematurely almost three years earlier, the Air Force had prepared a suite for her at the Otis Air Force Base Hospital. Kennedy had asked her obstetrician, John Walsh, and her White House physician, Janet Travell, to vacation on the Cape that summer. He called Travell before flying to Otis, and she reported that Walsh had taken Jackie to the hospital and was preparing to perform an emergency cesarean. Jackie would be fine, she said, but a baby born six weeks prematurely had only a fifty/fifty chance of surviving.
If there was ever a time when Kennedy could imagine beating these odds, it was the summer of 1963, a splendid season that his brother Bobby recalled being “the happiest time of his administration.” On June 28 he had given his Ich bin ein Berliner oration, a stirring summation of the difference between democratic and totalitarian states (and probably the finest speech delivered by an American president on foreign soil), to a quarter of a million Germans filling the future John F. Kennedy Platz. After Air Force One took off for Dublin he told Ted Sorensen, “We’ll never have another day like this one as long as we live,” but he was soon describing his visit to his ancestral villages in Ireland as the three happiest days of his life. The day after returning from Europe he went to Hyannis Port for a Fourth of July he called “the greatest weekend of my life.” After disembarking from his helicopter he had embraced Jackie, surprising reporters who had never seen them hug or walk arm in arm. The weather had been superb, three sparkling summer days. He felt healthier than he had in years, “bursting with vigor,” according to Dr. Travell. He took long swims, flew kites with John off the back of the Honey Fitz, the presidential cabin cruiser, and because his chronic back pain had largely vanished, played golf for the first time since 1961. He screened a film of his Irish trip on three straight evenings, and when he could not persuade anyone but his brother Ted to sit through it again they watched it alone, prompting his former Navy buddy Paul (“Red”) Fay to complain, “All we are getting here still is his Irish visit. . . . Jack brings the conversation back round to it and invariably shows the film which I have now seen for the sixth time.”
He had been a detached father when John and Caroline were infants, telling Fay, “I don’t understand how you can get such a big kick out of your children. . . . Certainly nothing they are going to say is going to stimulate you.” But once Caroline began talking, they forged a closer relationship, and by the summer of 1963 John had become a rambunctious and personable little boy. When Kennedy arrived at Hyannis Port he would shout, “It’s time for Father and Son to get to know each other.” John would dash into his arms and they would fall onto the lawn so he could hold the boy in the air, tickling him and saying, “John, aren’t you lucky to have a dad who plays with you like this?” His newfound rapport with his children had increased his excitement for his next one, and as he passed Lincoln’s desk he often told her, “Soon you’ll have three coming over to get candy from your candy dish.”
There had been rocky periods in his marriage, but Jackie’s pregnancy had brought them closer. Fay and his wife, Anita, had been their houseguests the weekend before Jackie went into labor. When Kennedy failed to appear for an excursion, Fay went upstairs and found them lying in bed, arms wrapped around each other, more intimate than he had ever seen them. Later that weekend Kennedy told Fay, “I’d known a lot of attractive women in my lifetime before I got married, but of all of them there was only one I could have married—and I married her.”
After returning to Washington from these summer weekends, he told his friend Dave Powers how much he was enjoying his children and how great everything was. Powers was a puckish, middle-aged Irish American who had been with him since his first campaign. His principal duties involved ushering distinguished visitors into the Oval Office (he had once famously told the Shah of Iran, “You’re my kind of shah”), entertaining the president with jokes, reminiscing about earlier campaigns, swimming alongside him in the White House pool, and keeping him company when his family was away, because he was a man, Powers said, who “could not bear to be alone, ever.” During the summer of 1963 they often sat together on the Truman Balcony, eating dinner off trays and listening to songs from Kennedy’s youth, such as “Stormy Weather” and “The Very Thought of You.” The spotlights came on, illuminating the White House fountain and the Washington Monument, and Kennedy invariably said, “It gets better every night” or “This is the best White House I’ve ever lived in.” When he became sleepy, Powers went upstairs with him, sitting by his bed and talking until he mumbled, “Good night, pal,” the signal that Powers could extinguish his light and return to his own family.
The summer of 1963 was also a high point in Kennedy’s presidency, “a remarkably intensive but productive period,” according to Sorensen. The Wall Street Journal reported in its front-page “Washington Wire” on August 9 that “White House optimism grows, little restrained by Washington’s summer doldrums. The Kennedy team feels the tide of events runs his way, at home and abroad. The President sees a chance for new accords to ease the cold war. The nation’s civil rights crisis seems to come under control. . . . Republican squabbling on issues and candidates pleases him as an omen for 1964.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, had known what he called “many President Kennedys.” They included the masterful leader of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the “supremely confident” man who emerged during the summer of 1963, and the president shaken by the “Bay of Pigs,” shorthand for the bungled attempt of CIA-trained Cuban exiles to overthrow the Communist regime of President Fidel Castro in April 1961. The Eisenhower administration had planned the operation, Kennedy’s civilian and military advisers had endorsed it, and he had approved what amounted to an amphibious landing on a hostile shore attempted by amateur Cuban soldiers overseen by American amateurs. He shouldered the blame but was furious with the Pentagon and CIA for a fiasco that he feared had mortally wounded his presidency.
As he and a friend drove out of the White House a few weeks after the catastrophe, he smiled and waved at a group of cheering supporters while muttering, “If they think they’re going to get me to run for this job again, they’re out of their minds.” He told his best friend and former prep school roommate Lem Billings that the presidency was “the most unpleasant job in existence,” and that he doubted anyone would want to build a library for what was promising to be “a rather tragic administration.” He remained pessimistic well into the fall. When the NBC correspondent Elie Abel asked him to cooperate on a book about his first term, he said, “Why would anyone write a book about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters?” But by the summer of 1963, following his successful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, a strong showing by Democrats in the 1962 elections, and healthy economic growth, he had become almost as happy and confident as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, who had faced the Depression and the Second World War, he was contending with two grave threats to the nation’s survival, a nuclear war and a racial conflict. On two successive days in June 1963 he delivered speeches addressing each one that represented a sharp departure from the caution marking his first two years in office.
Contrary to his public image as a dashing and decisive chief executive, Kennedy was, in fact, in the words of his economic adviser Paul Samuelson, “an extremely hesitant person who checked the ice in front of him all the time.” Winning the White House by about 113,000 votes out of the 69 million cast, the narrowest margin in almost a century, had encouraged his caution and pragmatism. There had been much ice checking during his first two years in office, leading the columnist Joseph Kraft to say that his motto could have been “no enemies to the right.”
At first, Kennedy had avoided challenging the hard-line cold warriors in either party and resisted engaging the Soviet Union in serious disarmament talks. He changed his mind after the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated how easily a misjudgment by either side could start a nuclear war. The crisis had started in October 1962, when Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was installing missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Cuba capable of attacking the U.S. mainland. He ordered a naval blockade of the island to prevent the arrival of more Soviet arms, and demanded that the Soviets remove the missiles and bases. For almost a week the two nations teetered on the brink of a nuclear war. The crisis was averted by a deal in which the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missiles and close the bases in exchange for a secret undertaking by Kennedy to do the same with U.S. missiles in Turkey. Kennedy’s friend David Ormsby-Gore, who was serving as Britain’s ambassador, observed that after the crisis, “he finally realized that the decision for a nuclear holocaust was his. And he saw it in terms of children—his children and everybody else’s children. And then that’s where his passion came in, that’s when his emotions came in.” The risk of radioactive fallout had worried him since 1961, when the Soviet Union unilaterally decided to resume atmospheric nuclear tests, forcing him to do the same. When he asked his science adviser Jerome Wiesner how fallout returned to the earth from the upper atmosphere, Wiesner explained that it came down in the rain. Staring at the rain falling in the Rose Garden, Kennedy said, “You mean there might be radioactive contamination in that rain out there right now?”
He used a June 10, 1963, commencement address at American University to announce his own unilateral suspension of atmospheric nuclear tests and to propose negotiations in Moscow aimed at drafting a treaty banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underground, underneath the oceans, and in outer space. The speech was a dramatic break from eighteen years of cold war rhetoric by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and himself. He blamed both sides for the arms race, called on Americans to “reexamine our own attitude—as individuals and as a Nation,” acknowledged Russia’s wartime sacrifices, declared that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue,” and reminded Americans that they and the Soviet people “breathe the same air,” “cherish our children’s future,” and “are all mortal,” expressing these truths so eloquently that one British newspaper called the address “one of the greatest state papers of American history.” Soviet newspapers reprinted its entire text and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev praised it as the best speech by any American president since Roosevelt.
The next day Kennedy delivered a nationally televised address on civil rights that James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) lauded as the “strongest civil rights speech made by any president, Lincoln included.” After saying that “race has no place in American life or law,” he announced that he was sending Congress a comprehensive civil rights bill guaranteeing all citizens the right to be served in hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and other public facilities. If passed, it would represent the most dramatic advance in civil rights since the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. As in his American University speech, he asked Americans to exercise their moral imaginations. After reminding whites that black citizens could not eat in public restaurants, send their children to the best public schools, or vote for their representatives, he asked, “Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” When he finished, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told a companion, “Can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!” The next day King sent him a telegram praising the speech as “eloquent, passionate and unequivocal . . . a hallmark in the annals of American history.” King and Farmer would have been even more impressed had they known that all of Kennedy’s senior advisers except his brother Bobby had opposed him delivering a speech framing the issue in moral terms, and submitting a civil rights bill to Congress.
In Profiles in Courage, his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of eight U.S. senators who had chosen principle over political expediency, he had written about men who, much like himself until 1963, had “sailed with the wind until the decisive moment when their conscience, and events, propelled them into the center of the storm.” His two June speeches represented just that moment, and some of the remarks he made after delivering them sounded as if he were nominating himself for a chapter in his own book. After the test ban treaty was initialed in Moscow, he told Sorensen he would “gladly” forfeit reelection to win the sixty-seven votes needed to ratify it in the Senate. After a Gallup poll reported that 50 percent of Americans believed he was moving “too fast” on civil rights, he told a reporter at a press conference, “Great historical events cannot be judged by taking the national temperature every few weeks. . . . I think we will stand after a period of time has gone by,” and said to his secretary of commerce, Luther Hodges, a former Southern governor, “There comes a time when a man has to take a stand and history will record that he has to meet these tough situations and ultimately make a decision.” During a White House meeting with civil rights leaders he pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket containing the results of a poll showing his approval ratings falling from 60 to 47 percent since his speech and said grandiloquently, “I may lose the next election because of this. I don’t care.”
His June speeches had been a decisive break from the past: one offered the first concrete proposals for limiting the spread and testing of atomic weapons since the beginning of the cold war; the other represented the first time an American president had identified civil rights as a moral issue. They condemned racial discrimination and nuclear war as immoral, stressed the common humanity of whites and blacks, and Americans and Russians, and were profoundly optimistic. At American University he had said, “Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” The following evening, he declared that passage of his civil rights bill would enable America “to fulfill its promise.” The author and peace activist Norman Cousins, who had been serving as a clandestine intermediary between Kennedy and Khrushchev, spoke of “a new spirit of hopefulness” abroad in the world that summer, writing, “Nothing is more powerful than an individual acting out of his conscience, thus helping to bring the collective conscience to life.”
The political scientist James MacGregor Burns had concluded his 1960 biography of Kennedy by writing, “Kennedy could bring bravery and wisdom [to the presidency]; whether he would bring passion and power would depend on his making a commitment not only of mind, but of heart, that until now he has never been required to make.” Kennedy’s two speeches answered Burns’s criticism and honored a pledge he had made to the poet Robert Frost. During a visit to the White House two days after the inauguration, Frost had presented him with a signed and handwritten copy of the poem that he had composed for the ceremony but could not read because of the glare from a dazzling winter sun. As Frost watched, Kennedy read the poem, which amounted to a challenge to display the kind of courage that he had celebrated in Profiles in Courage and concluded by predicting,
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
“Be more Irish than Harvard,” Frost said as they parted. “Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan age. Don’t be afraid of power.” At the bottom of a typed thank-you note to Frost, Kennedy scrawled, “It’s poetry and power all the way!”
There had been poetry in his early speeches. In November 1961, he warned students at the University of Washington that “the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. . . . We cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity.” During the Cuban missile crisis he spoke of a nuclear war “in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths,” and said, “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right.” But it was not until June 1963 that he finally began to be more Irish than Harvard, governing from the heart as well as the head, harnessing poetry to the power of the presidency without checking the thickness of the political ice, promising in his American University speech, “Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave . . . not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace in all time,” and the next day calling civil rights a moral issue “as old as the scriptures and . . . as clear as the American Constitution.”
• • •
JACKIE GAVE BIRTH to their son while Kennedy was in the air. He sat silently during the flight, staring out a window. Another passenger remembered seeing the same stricken expression on his face on November 25, 1960, when he had flown back to Washington from Palm Beach after learning that Jackie had gone into premature labor with John. He had been tense and perspiring then, and was overheard muttering, “I’m never there when she needs me.”
Jackie had suffered a miscarriage in 1955 and had become pregnant again the following year. Her physician had urged her to skip the 1956 Democratic Convention, but she felt obliged to attend because her husband was a candidate for the vice presidency. She went to her mother and stepfather’s estate in Newport afterward while he flew to Europe for a holiday. While he was cruising off Capri with what one newspaper called “several young women,” she went into labor and gave birth to a stillborn baby girl they planned to name Arabella, after a ship bringing Puritan settlers to Massachusetts. He did not hear about the tragedy until three days later and decided to continue the cruise, leaving Bobby to comfort Jackie and bury Arabella. He flew home after one of his best friends in the Senate, George Smathers of Florida, told him during a transatlantic call, “You’d better haul your ass back to your wife if you want to run for president.”
Jackie spent most of the autumn of 1956 in Newport and London, avoiding Hyannis Port and telling her sister, Lee Radziwill, that her marriage was probably over. But when she gave birth to Caroline a year later he arrived at the hospital carrying a bouquet of her favorite flowers, periwinkle-blue irises, and was the first to lay their daughter in her arms. He boasted of her being the prettiest baby in the nursery, and his voice broke when he described her to Lem Billings, who had never seen him happier or more emotional. Caroline had repaired some of the post-Arabella damage, and John’s birth would also bring them closer, but neither ended his philandering.
Before flying to Otis he had called Larry Newman, a journalist and friend who lived across the street from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, and asked him to drive to the base hospital and wait for him in the lobby. When he arrived, he began to throw an arm over Newman’s shoulder but stopped in midair and shook his hand instead. “Thanks for being here,” he said in a voice so choked with emotion that Newman almost burst into tears.
Dr. Walsh reported that his son, whom he and Jackie had decided to name Patrick, was suffering from “hyaline membrane disease” (now known as respiratory distress syndrome), a common ailment among premature infants in which a film covering the air sacs of the lungs hinders their ability to supply oxygen to the bloodstream. The chances that a five-and-a-half-week-premature infant weighing 4 pounds 10½ ounces with this ailment would survive in 1963 were, as Travell had warned, only fifty/fifty. (The chances have since improved dramatically.) Kennedy flew in a pediatric specialist who recommended sending Patrick to Children’s Hospital in Boston, the premier medical center in the world for childhood diseases. Before an ambulance took the infant away he wheeled him into Jackie’s room in an isolette, a pressurized incubator simulating the oxygen and temperature conditions of the womb. The boy lay motionless on his back, a name band hanging loosely around his tiny wrist. Hospital personnel described him as “beautifully formed” and “a cute little monkey with light brown hair.” Jackie was not permitted to hold him and became upset after learning that he was going to Boston.
She had suffered months of postpartum depression following John’s birth, and Kennedy feared it might happen again. He pulled aside an Air Force medic, Richard Petrie, and asked what he knew about television. Puzzled by the question, Petrie said, “Well, I can turn one on and off.” Kennedy explained that if Patrick died he did not want Jackie hearing the news on television, and to prevent this happening he wanted Petrie to disable her set. The medic slipped back into her room, pried off the back of her television, and smashed a tube.
“Nothing must happen to Patrick,” Kennedy told his mother-in-law, Janet Auchincloss, before flying to Boston, “because I just can’t bear to think of the effect it might have on Jackie.”
A jubilant crowd at Logan Airport, either unaware of Patrick’s condition or unable to believe that anything bad could happen to such a charmed family, greeted him with cheers and applause. Flashbulbs popped and girls screamed and held out autograph books. He offered a tight smile and a halfhearted wave.
There was no cure for hyaline membrane disease in 1963, and an infant survived only if its normal bodily functions dissolved the membrane coating the lungs within forty-eight hours. Kennedy had consulted the best physicians and sent his son to the best hospital. Now all he could do was wait. He spent the night at his family’s apartment in the Ritz Hotel. Before returning to Children’s Hospital the next morning, he called Ted Sorensen to review his formal statement accompanying the presentation of the test ban treaty to Congress. It called the agreement “the finest concrete result of eighteen years of effort by the United States to impose limits on the nuclear arms race” and said it embodied “the hopes of the world.” Sorensen remembered him reading these sentences out loud in “a downcast but factual manner.”
Patrick’s breathing stabilized, and Kennedy returned to Otis to deliver the news to Jackie. She was so encouraged that she spent the afternoon choosing lipsticks and arranging for a ballet company to entertain Emperor Haile Selassie during his state visit in October. Kennedy returned to their rented house on Squaw Island—a spit of land connected to Hyannis Port by a causeway—and lunched on the terrace with Janet Auchincloss and her eighteen-year-old daughter, also named Janet. Young Janet was supposed to have her society debut in Newport the next weekend but wanted to cancel it because of Patrick. Hearing this, Kennedy said, “This is the kind of thing that has to go on. You can’t let all those people down.” Knowing she was self-conscious about her weight, he added, “You know, Janet, you really are a very beautiful girl.” Her face lit up and she said, “Oh, Mr. President, I don’t know what you mean.” Her mother believed that this last-minute flattery gave her the confidence to have the party.
Patrick’s condition suddenly deteriorated, and Kennedy rushed back to Children’s Hospital by helicopter, landing on the grass of a nearby stadium. The boy’s physicians had decided to force oxygen into his lungs by placing him in a hyperbaric chamber, a thirty-one-foot-long steel cylinder resembling a small submarine, with portholes and air locks between its compartments. It was the only one in the country and had been used for infants undergoing cardiac surgery and victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. Patrick would be the first hyaline membrane baby placed inside it.
Upon returning to the Ritz, Kennedy asked Evelyn Lincoln to bring him some White House stationery. She found him sitting on his bed, staring into space. After a full minute of silence he wrote on a sheet of paper, “Please find enclosed a contribution to the O’Leary fund. I hope it is a success.” He enclosed a check for $250 (worth about $1,800 today), sealed the envelope, and told her to have the Secret Service deliver it. Weeks later, an accountant handling his personal finances informed Lincoln that a bank was questioning the validity of his signature on an August 8 check to the James B. O’Leary Fund. She recalled reading about a Boston policeman named O’Leary who had been killed in the line of duty. Kennedy had been so distraught about Patrick that his handwriting on the check was even more indecipherable than usual.
• • •
KENNEDY HAD ALMOST DIED from scarlet fever when he was two years old. His temperature rose to 105, blisters covered his body, and he was quarantined in a Boston hospital. His father attended Mass every morning for three weeks and promised God to donate half his wealth to charity if his son survived. He kept his word, up to a point, sending a check for $3,750 to the Guild of Apollonia, an organization of Catholic dentists providing free dental care to needy children. It was a generous sum for the time but could have represented only half the money in his personal bank account, not half his net worth. It would be surprising if Kennedy, like his father and most other parents in his situation, had not bargained with God. Perhaps the O’Leary check was part of the deal. If it was, and the Almighty was keeping score, He could have added it to a long list of acts of thoughtfulness and compassion on Kennedy’s part, some trivial but nevertheless part of a pattern.
While serving in the Pacific he had torn the PT 109 patch off his shirt and mailed it to a cousin who was homesick at boarding school along with a note saying, “I’m not so crazy about where I’m at either, kiddo. Be brave. Wear my patch, and we’ll get through this.” While staying with Paul Fay in California during leave from the Navy he was so charmed by Margaret (“Miggie”) McMahon, the Irish nursemaid who had raised Fay, that he began calling her every year on her birthday, a tradition he continued throughout his life, making his last call from the White House in 1963. While rushing to grab a quick lunch, he had noticed a group of spastic children touring the White House grounds in wheelchairs and insisted on engaging each child in a lengthy conversation. When a boy mentioned that his father had also served in a PT boat squadron, he darted back into his office, found his PT boat skipper’s hat, and placed it on the boy’s head. “His father was in PT boats, too,” he explained to a Secret Service agent who was wiping away tears. “His father is dead.” He studied photographs of the agents so he could address each by his first name. One brutally cold winter evening, he asked the agent on duty outside the French doors leading to the garden to come inside. After the man explained that he could not leave his post, he returned with his own fleece-lined coat and insisted he wear it, then reappeared with two mugs of hot chocolate that they drank while sitting on the icy steps.
His practice of moving those who disappointed him to other jobs rather than dismissing them led Undersecretary of State George Ball to conclude that he was “deeply concerned with other people’s feelings and sensitivities to the point of being almost physically upset by having to fire anyone.” David Ormsby-Gore, who made his acquaintance in London when he was a young man, was struck by his “beautiful manners” and courtesy to the elderly. These attributes had helped him win over Eleanor Roosevelt, who nursed a long-standing grudge against the Kennedy family and had criticized him for failing to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy, declaring that she was reluctant to support “someone who understands what courage is and admires it, but has not quite the independence to have it.” After he won the nomination, they had scheduled a meeting during which he hoped to persuade her to campaign for him. Her favorite granddaughter had died in a riding accident the day before, but she insisted on proceeding anyway. Several weeks later, she told the staff of Citizens for Kennedy in Cleveland, “That young man behaved with such sensitivity and compassion throughout that whole day, he gave me more comfort than almost anyone around me: the manner in which he treated me . . . won me as did many things he told me he believed in.”
Sorensen described Kennedy as “a good and decent man with a conscience that told him what was right and a heart that cared about the well-being of those around him.” But he was unaware of Kennedy’s compulsive womanizing. A friend who knew the truth offered a more realistic assessment, saying, “For a man who was very kind to people, and was very concerned about how he treated people, Jack was not very conscious about how much he hurt his wife.”
After writing his check to the O’Leary fund, Kennedy went to Children’s Hospital and stood outside the hyperbaric chamber, watching through a porthole as physicians labored over Patrick. At 6:30 p.m., Salinger told reporters that the boy’s “downward spiral” had stopped but his condition remained serious. Kennedy returned to the Ritz, but an hour later Patrick was struggling and he rushed back to the hospital. Bobby Kennedy and Dave Powers flew up from Washington and joined him outside the chamber. Patrick’s breathing improved and his physicians urged Kennedy to get some sleep. Reluctant as ever to be alone, he asked Powers to share his hospital room. Powers lay down on a spare cot in his suit while Kennedy changed into his pajamas and knelt by the bed, hands clasped in prayer. Powers and Lem Billings had probably watched Kennedy fall asleep more often than anyone except Jackie. Neither could recall him ever retiring without first praying on his knees. No one can know what he prayed that evening, but it is unlikely that a man who prayed every day, attended Mass every Sunday, and had turned to religion at other emotional moments in his life would not have beseeched God to spare his son, and in the coming weeks and months there would be clues as to what he may have offered Him in return.
Few presidents have been as religiously observant as Kennedy yet reluctant to discuss their faith. He never raised the subject with Sorensen, leaving him wondering if his attendance at Mass was motivated by “political necessity.” But he would banter about religion with Jackie’s dressmaker Oleg Cassini, telling him, “I’d better keep my nose clean, just in case He’s up there,” and scolding him for questioning papal infallibility, saying, “The weakness of man should not weaken the image of God.” Jackie insisted that he had not been an atheist or an agnostic, and “did believe in God,” but sometimes wondered if his bedtime prayers and faithful attendance at Mass were ways of hedging his bets. “If it [the afterlife] was that way,” she said, “he wanted to have that [his adherence to Catholic ritual] on his side.”
Sometimes one could glimpse his faith. During his first congressional campaign he had astonished his aide Mark Dalton by impulsively ducking back into a church where they had just attended Mass so he could light a candle for his deceased brother. He was sensitive about being the first Catholic president and avoided public displays of piety, but when he attended Mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe during a 1962 visit to Mexico City his emotions trumped his political caution. As Jackie brought a bouquet of red roses to the altar he was so overcome that he crossed himself, causing the congregation to burst into applause. While recuperating in Palm Beach from a 1955 back operation that had almost killed him, he jotted down some ideas for Profiles in Courage, including this passage from Job: “Oh that one would hear me! Behold, my desire is that the Almighty would answer me.” A tense 1961 summit with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna left him so shaken that on the plane returning to Washington he scribbled, “I know there is a God—and I see a storm coming; If He has a place for me, I believe I am ready,” a quotation he often used in campaign speeches and attributed to Abraham Lincoln. (Evelyn Lincoln found the paper on the floor of Air Force One and squirreled it away with the other notes and doodles that she was constantly rescuing from wastebaskets.) That fall, after the Berlin crisis had cooled, he had slipped out of the White House on National Prayer Day and sat alone in a rear pew at Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, leading Hugh Sidey of Time to note, “To many who had watched him [Kennedy] through nine months of crisis, it seemed that his church attendance and the reference in his talks to prayer had become less mechanical and more meaningful.”
A Secret Service agent woke him at 2:00 a.m. to report that Patrick was struggling. As he hurried to the elevators the nurses in the corridor looked away. He saw a severely burned infant in one of the wards and stopped to ask a nurse for the name of the child’s mother so he could send her a note. Holding a piece of paper against the ward window, he wrote, “Keep up your courage. John F. Kennedy.”
For several hours he sat on a wooden chair outside the hyperbaric chamber, wearing a surgical cap and gown and communicating with the medical team by speakerphone. Near the end they wheeled Patrick into the corridor so he could be with his father. When the boy died at 4:19 a.m. Kennedy was clutching his little fingers. After saying in a quiet voice, “He put up quite a fight. He was a beautiful baby,” he ducked into a boiler room and wept loudly for ten minutes. After returning to his room he sent Powers on an errand so he could cry some more. He broke down outside the hospital and asked an aide to beg a photographer who had captured his grief not to publish the picture.
His eyes were red and his face swollen when he arrived at Otis that morning. As he described Patrick’s death to Jackie, he fell to his knees and sobbed.
“There’s just one thing I couldn’t stand,” she said in a faint voice. “If I ever lost you . . .”
“I know . . . I know . . . ,” he whispered.
Lincoln called Patrick’s death “one of the hardest blows” he had ever experienced. Sorensen thought he was “even more broken” than his wife. Jackie said, “He felt the loss of the baby in the house as much as I did,” and noticed him tearing up when he held John. His tears were all the more astonishing given that Joe Kennedy had frequently told his children, “There’ll be no crying in this house.” They shortened it to “Kennedys don’t cry,” repeated it to their children, and according to Ted Kennedy, “All of us absorbed its impact and molded our behavior to honor it. We have wept only rarely in public.”
Kennedy’s friends believed that he grappled with such powerful feelings that he was afraid of having them surface. Laura Bergquist sensed “a reservoir of emotion” under his “cool cat exterior.” Ormsby-Gore detected “deep emotions and strong passions underneath,” adding that “when his friends were hurt or a tragedy occurred or his child died, I think he felt it very deeply. But somehow public display was anathema to him.” Ormsby-Gore compared him to Raymond Asquith, the brilliant son of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith who was killed in the First World War. In Pilgrim’s Way, one of Kennedy’s favorite books, John Buchan wrote about Asquith, “He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly but because he felt deeply.”
Children, family, and heroism could unlock his emotions. His first words to the crew of the PT boat rescuing him in the Pacific had been “Where the hell have you been?” And when someone shouted, “We’ve got some food for you,” he shot back, “Thanks. I’ve just had a coconut.” But the bravado ended at the base, where a friend found him sitting on his cot, tears streaming down his face, saying between sobs, “If only they’d come over to help me, maybe I might have been able to save those other two.” While delivering a Veterans Day address in Boston several years after the war, he broke down after saying, “No greater love has a man than he who gives up his life for his brother.” (He was probably thinking of his older brother, Joe, who had been killed in the war.) At a Memorial Day event in Brookline he choked up after proclaiming, “The memory of these young men will abide as long as men are found who will set honor and country above all else.” Moments after his inauguration Jackie gently touched his cheek and said, “Oh, Jack—what a day!” and saw his eyes fill with tears. After John’s birth, Ireland’s ambassador, Thomas Kiernan, had recited an Irish poem in the boy’s honor that began, “We wish to a new child / a heart that can be beguiled by a flower.” Kennedy was so moved that he remained silent for several minutes, not trusting himself to speak without crying. He finally said in a soft voice, “I wish it had been written for me.” During the Cuban missile crisis he wept in front of Bobby while speaking about the millions of children who would perish in a nuclear war, and after the Bay of Pigs invasion Jackie saw him put his head in his hands and cry upon learning that hundreds of Cuban exiles had died on the beach. He cried again while discussing the Bay of Pigs casualties with Cardinal Cushing, who would be presiding at Patrick’s funeral.
Kennedy asked Judge Francis Morrissey, a close family friend, to arrange the service. Morrissey chose a white gown for Patrick and a small white casket. He ordered it closed because he recalled Kennedy telling him, “Frank, I want you to make sure they close the coffin when I die.”
Cushing celebrated the Mass in the chapel of his Boston residence on the morning of August 10. There were thirteen mourners, all members of the Kennedy and Auchincloss families except for Morrissey, Cushing, and Cardinal Spellman of New York. According to Catholic doctrine, baptized children who die before the age of reason go directly to heaven (Patrick had been baptized at the hospital), and the Mass of Angels is designed to be a comforting ceremony emphasizing their purity and eternal life. Kennedy wept throughout. When it ended, he took the money clip fashioned from a gold St. Christopher medal that Jackie had given him at their wedding and slipped it into Patrick’s coffin. Then he threw his arms around the coffin, as if planning to carry it away. “Come on, dear Jack, Let’s go . . . Let’s go,” Cushing murmured. “God is good. Nothing more can be done. Death is not the end of it all, but the beginning.”
Joseph Kennedy had recently purchased a family plot at Holyhood Cemetery, and Patrick would be the first Kennedy interred there. As Cushing spoke at the grave, John Kennedy’s shoulders began heaving. Putting a hand on the coffin, the president said, “Good-bye,” then touched the ground and whispered, “It’s awfully lonely here.” Seeing him bent over the grave, alone and vulnerable, a Secret Service agent asked Cushing, “How do you protect this man?”
Back at Otis, he wept in Jackie’s arms while describing the funeral. After recovering his composure he said, “You know, Jackie, we must not create an atmosphere of sadness in the White House, because this would not be good for anyone—not for the country and not for the work we have to do.” His reference to “the work we have to do” stressed their partnership in a way that Jackie had to find gratifying, and promising. According to her mother, it made a “profound impression” on her.
Monday, August 12
CAPE COD AND WASHINGTON
Monday was the nineteenth anniversary of the day that Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., had been killed in action while participating in Operation Aphrodite, a harebrained and ultimately unsuccessful scheme that involved Navy pilots flying B-17 bombers packed with explosives toward German missile sites and U-boat pens on the French coast before bailing out at the last minute into the English Channel. On Monday morning all of the Kennedy siblings except Rosemary, who had been institutionalized in 1944 after a botched lobotomy, and Jack attended a requiem Mass for Joe at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis Port. The White House announced that the president was missing the service because he was visiting Jackie, but it took only twelve minutes to fly by helicopter from Otis to Hyannis Port, so he could have easily done both, and he later found time to take an excursion on the family speedboat.
He did not skip Joe’s Mass because he had been any less devastated by his older brother’s death than his siblings. Joe had been more athletic and popular in school, and sometimes teased and bullied him, but they had been competitors, not enemies, and he had mourned him deeply, telling Lem Billings that Joe’s death had left him “shadowboxing in a match the shadow is always going to win.” The headmaster of Choate, the boarding school both had attended, wrote his mother that he would now have to live Joe’s life as well as his own. He ended up living Joe’s life instead of his own, having the brilliant political career that his father had always imagined for Joe.
It was difficult for a Kennedy to be in Hyannis Port and not be reminded of Joe or his sister Kathleen, who had died in a 1948 plane crash. Ted Kennedy called his family’s rambling clapboard house “an oasis of stability and family love,” and it was the only real home the Kennedy children had known while shuttling between their parents’ winter residences in Palm Beach and suburban New York. JFK had lived in dormitories at two boarding schools and three colleges, then in houses and apartments in Washington, but every summer he returned to Hyannis Port. It had been the backdrop for the iconic 1953 photograph on the cover of Life showing him and Jackie on a sailboat, barefoot, tanned, and flashing radiant smiles, and the 1962 photograph on the cover of Look in which he was driving a golf cart packed with his nieces and nephews, hair flying and mouths open, screaming in delight. It was where he had devised his strategy for the 1960 election and learned that he had won it when Caroline jumped on his bed and said, “Good morning, Mr. President”; and where he and Bobby had acquired houses adjoining their parents’ home, so they could play flashlight tag and touch football on the same lawn, swim off the same beach, and sail in the same waters as they had in their youth, glimpsing the ghosts of their younger selves, and those of Kathleen and Joe.
Hyannis Port was also where the family had donated an altar to St. Francis Xavier Church commemorating Joe. To the left of the crucifix a painted image of St. George represented England, from which Joe had taken off on his final mission; to its right was St. Joan of Arc, representing France, his destination. Above them floated the badge of a naval aviator, a pair of wings against a blue background. It was impossible for a Kennedy to attend Mass here and not be reminded of Joe’s suicidal mission, one for which he had volunteered, hoping to match his younger brother’s PT 109 heroics. Kennedy never mentioned Joe by name in his speeches, perhaps because he feared he might break down, so it is possible that he skipped the Mass on the nineteenth anniversary of Joe’s death because he was afraid he would look at this altar and begin weeping, and after Patrick’s death he could not bear any more tears.
• • •
HE ARRIVED AT THE WHITE HOUSE at 4:00 p.m. on Monday and immediately resumed what he had been doing before his hurried departure on August 7, trying to find sixty-seven senators willing to ratify his test ban treaty.
An hour before Jackie went into labor, he had been chairing a meeting in the Cabinet Room, called to organize the Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban. Attending were senior aides; cabinet members; James Wadsworth, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Norman Cousins, whose conversations with Khrushchev had led to the treaty. Kennedy had been pessimistic about its ratification, complaining that most senators had yet to announce their support, and mail to Congress and the White House had been overwhelmingly negative. Persuading two thirds of the senators to support anythingwould be difficult enough, he said; persuading them to ratify a treaty this controversial would be a miracle. Fifteen would vote against anything he supported, and if the vote were held that day he thought the treaty would fail, a catastrophe he compared to America’s failure to ratify the League of Nations following World War I.
Cousins provided a list of forty-eight prominent individuals who had agreed to serve on a pro-treaty Citizens Committee. Wadsworth warned that retired military officers and Dr. Edward Teller, the developer of the hydrogen bomb and a lifelong conservative who was an implacable foe of limiting nuclear testing, would argue that fallout was not dangerous and the Soviets were likely to violate the treaty. Kennedy admitted that he was unsure he could even hold his own administration in line, and assumed some in the military and on the Atomic Energy Commission would work behind the scenes to persuade Congress and the press that the treaty threatened national security. The generals opposing it, he said, believed the best solution to a crisis was “to start dropping the big bombs.”
While flying to Otis after this meeting he had scribbled “Fullbright” [sic] and “Senate Preparedness Subcommittee” on a slip of paper. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, a Democrat, chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, which would hold open hearings on the treaty beginning August 12. The Senate Preparedness Subcommittee was dominated by cold war hawks like Barry Goldwater, Henry Jackson, and Strom Thurmond, and chaired by Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, a treaty opponent who was insisting on closed hearings. After checking into the Ritz that evening, he had written “Joint Chiefs” on another scrap of paper. He believed the treaty could be ratified only if the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported it, and if enough Senate Republicans voted for it to compensate for the defection of Southern Democrats. He had lobbied the chiefs individually at the end of July, and they had agreed to support it in their testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in exchange for his endorsement of what became known as the “four safeguards”: a robust program of underground testing, the maintenance of modern nuclear laboratories and programs, the capability to resume atmospheric testing promptly if the Soviets withdrew from the treaty or cheated, and an improved capacity to detect violations.
Senator Stennis had summoned the chiefs to closed hearings, and Kennedy feared that if they testified there first, they might voice reservations about the treaty that would be leaked to the press before they could support it openly before Fulbright’s committee. To prevent this happening, he telephoned Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield when he returned to the White House on Monday to stress the importance of having the chiefs testify before his committee first. He was making “such a big thing” about it, he said, “because, in my opinion, the chiefs are the key and what they will say in public would be more pro-treaty than what they will say under interrogation by Scoop Jackson.”
He addressed the second threat to the treaty’s ratification, the opposition of Senate Republicans, during an hour-long off-the-record meeting with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen that began at six that evening. His appointment book does not indicate where they met, but since the weather was fine and the matter under discussion so sensitive that Dirksen had insisted on going into the Rose Garden when they first spoke about it during the winter of 1961, they probably went outside, where there was less risk of having their conversation overheard or intercepted by whatever bugs the CIA, FBI, or other government agencies might have installed in the White House without Kennedy’s knowledge, a possibility he did not consider all that far-fetched. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had made a point of telling J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, in front of Kennedy, that if he discovered a hidden microphone or phone taps in his office he would resign and expose him. Bobby Kennedy often looked up at a chandelier in his office and shouted, “You bugging, Hoover? Well, listen to this, you old son of a bitch. . . .” And having bugged the Oval Office himself and kept it a secret from almost everyone in his family and staff, Kennedy had to entertain the possibility that someone might be doing the same thing to him.
In the summer of 1962, he had ordered the Secret Service agent Robert Bouck to install microphones in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, and his upstairs study. Bouck had hidden two microphones in the wall sconces of the Cabinet Room. In the Oval Office, he had placed one underneath the coffee table and another in Kennedy’s desk. Wires connected them to tape recorders in a locked basement room. Unlike President Nixon’s taping system, which ran continuously and recorded everything, Kennedy’s was engineered so he could record only the conversations that he wanted to preserve. In the Cabinet Room, he could press a button disguised as a buzzer to activate the system; in the Oval Office, he pressed one on the coffee table or another concealed in the kneehole of his desk. At first, only Bouck, his assistant Chester Miller, and Lincoln knew about the microphones. Bobby Kennedy and Ken O’Donnell learned about the system later, and Dave Powers figured it out after Kennedy cautioned him to watch his language, saying, “I don’t want to hear your bad words coming back at me.” None of his other senior advisers and members of his cabinet—not even his press secretary, Pierre Salinger; his aides Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Ted Sorensen; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; or Secretary of State Dean Rusk—knew that he was recording them. His principal motive for taping selected conversations and meetings was probably to provide accurate and irrefutable material for his presidential memoirs. He had been disturbed that soon after the Bay of Pigs fiasco some of his advisers who had endorsed the operation began claiming that they had actually opposed it. His recordings would prevent a recurrence of this type of revisionism.
Secret Service agents swept through the Oval Office several times a week, looking for bugs in his telephones and unscrewing their mouthpieces to search for transistors that could pick up conversations before the scramblers made them unintelligible. Because assassins had attempted to poison foreign political figures with radioactive material hidden in their watches and rings, they swept the room with a Geiger counter and passed a wand over Kennedy’s wristwatch. But even these precautions had not persuaded him that his office was safe. Minutes before civil rights leaders gathered in the Oval Office on June 22, 1963, he had taken Martin Luther King, Jr., into the Rose Garden and prefaced his remarks by saying, “I assume you know you’re under very close surveillance.” King concluded that he was referring to the FBI, and wondered if he was insisting on speaking outdoors because he feared its surveillance might extend into the White House, and that the Oval Office might be bugged. As they walked, he warned King that the government had evidence that two of his close associates were Communist agents, said their presence in his inner circle might imperil passage of the civil rights bill, and urged him to break off contact with them. By warning him of this surveillance he was in effect thwarting an FBI operation and obstructing justice, reason enough to be sure he was not overheard.
Dirksen had seemed concerned about listening devices when he arrived in the winter of 1961 for a hurriedly arranged meeting. “I would like for you to surrender your title for a few minutes and join me for a stroll in the Rose Garden to discuss a very personal and private matter,” he had said. “It simply must be two friends—Jack and Ev—talking on a personal basis.”
Once they were outside, Dirksen told him that President Eisenhower wanted Kennedy to persuade his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy to cancel an impending indictment of the former New Hampshire governor Sherman Adams for tax fraud. Adams was a close friend of Eisenhower and had served as his chief of staff before resigning following allegations that he had received an expensive Oriental rug and fur coat from Bernard Goldfine, a Boston businessman under investigation for violating federal trade regulations. Goldfine had now supplied federal agents with documentary evidence indicating that he had also given Adams more than $150,000 in cash during a five-year period. The Justice Department had presented the case to a grand jury and was preparing to indict Adams for failing to pay taxes on the bribes. Adams’s wife had told Mamie Eisenhower that she was afraid he would commit suicide if he was indicted, and Eisenhower had told Dirksen, “I was president for eight years, and I think I have the respect of the American people and I want to retain it. I believe the day will come when President Kennedy will need the public assistance of a former president whose name has prestige and who’s beyond partisan arrows. I’d like you to ask President Kennedy, as a personal favor to me, to put the Adams indictment in the deep freeze. You have the authority to advise him he’ll have a blank check in my bank if he will grant me this favor.”
Dirksen sweetened Ike’s offer by also promising a blank check on his bank. It was a tempting deal. Eisenhower remained popular, and his support for a bill could influence public opinion and Republican congressmen. (During a 1962 interview with the television networks’ White House correspondents, Kennedy had said that Eisenhower had “great influence today in the Republican party, and therefore in the country.”) Dirksen’s check was even more valuable. Although Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, Southern Democrats opposed much of Kennedy’s domestic agenda, making it difficult for him to pass legislation without Republican support.
Kennedy told Dirksen that he was unaware of any case against Adams. They returned to the Oval Office and he called Bobby, who confirmed that an indictment was imminent. “Cancel it, and do it now,” he said. “Don’t sign the indictment. Place it in the deep freeze.” Bobby argued that showing favoritism to a tax cheat could “destroy us politically.” As Dirksen listened, their conversation became increasingly heated until he reminded Bobby who was president and said that if he could not comply “your resignation will be accepted.”
He did not mention Eisenhower’s “blank check” to Bobby, and anyone overhearing (or taping) their conversation would have concluded that he was extending a professional courtesy to a former president, sparing him the embarrassment of having a close associate indicted. Viewed that way, it was not unlike President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon. But it was one thing to pardon Nixon to end the Watergate nightmare; it would have been another had Nixon or his agents offered Ford something in return. Similarly, once Kennedy cashed Eisenhower’s and Dirksen’s blank checks he would be transforming an act of presidential discretion and mercy into an unethical bargain, one in which he had obstructed justice to reap a future reward.
Dirksen wrote Eisenhower a carefully worded letter afterward. Referring to “one of your former staff members,” he said, “I believe everything is in proper order.” Eisenhower’s reply was equally opaque: “I am particularly indebted to you for following through the matter mentioned in your second paragraph.”
Many politicians would have viewed cashing Eisenhower’s blank check as business as usual. For Kennedy, it was a departure from the ethical standards that had guided him throughout his career. He had expounded on the importance of public integrity in his January 1961 farewell speech to Massachusetts legislators, telling them history would not judge them “merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation,” nor would their “competence and loyalty and stature . . . suffice at times such as these.” Instead, “the high court of history” would measure them by the answers to four questions: were they “men of courage,” “men of judgment,” “men of dedication,” and “men of integrity.” A man of integrity, he added, would permit neither “financial gain nor political ambition” to divert him from fulfilling the public’s “sacred trust.”
Kennedy was in many respects a hard-nosed politician, fond of saying, “Forgive your enemies but never forget their names,” and able to drive down a street in his former congressional district and recall which stores had displayed his campaign posters fifteen years earlier. The journalist Fletcher Knebel (who was married to Laura Bergquist) considered him “a very real, a very earthy, a very . . . cynical politician,” and noticed that whenever he mentioned someone who had crossed him, “his voice would get sharp, rough, his eyes would narrow and you could tell that the big time grudge was still on,” and at moments like these, Knebel said, his blond eyebrows gave him “the eyes of a snake.”
Although he demanded loyalty and held grudges against those who withheld it, he often failed to reward it with favors and patronage, an omission leading one Boston politician to complain, “Kennedy doesn’t pay for anybody’s funeral and seldom goes to wakes and he never seems to get anyone a job. Now what kind of a politician is that?” He was so averse to the patronage politics of his maternal grandfather, John (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald, the baby-kissing, saloon-visiting, favor-swapping former mayor of Boston, that he slighted his own family. While he was serving in the U.S. Senate, his maternal uncle Thomas Fitzgerald had continued working as a uniformed toll taker on the Mystic River Bridge, and an unemployed cousin was so certain that Kennedy would refuse to help him get a government job that he approached Governor Foster Furcolo. He had resisted his father’s demand that he make Bobby attorney general, giving his personal attorney, Clark Clifford, the bizarre assignment of persuading his own father that it was a bad idea. His other major appointments had been remarkable for their lack of political calculation. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were all Republicans, and he had not met McNamara and Rusk before asking them to join his cabinet. The greatest challenge to his “Ministry of Talent” philosophy came when his father pushed him to appoint Francis Morrissey to a vacant seat on the federal district court in Massachusetts. Morrissey was unqualified for the position, and after much agonizing Kennedy left the seat vacant rather than give it to him.
His distaste for patronage was part of a moral architecture buttressed by Profiles in Courage, since after celebrating the bravery and ethics of eight exemplary U.S. senators he could hardly hold himself to a lower standard. Before winning the presidency, he had written in a notebook that if a politician wanted to be “a positive force for public good,” he needed to possess “a solid moral code covering his public actions.” The phrase “public actions” implied that a politician’s moral code as it pertained to his private actions was irrelevant—a distinction not lost on Jackie, who once told a guest at a Georgetown dinner party who had praised her husband for being a fine politician, “He may be a fine politician, but do we know if he’s a fine person?”
Until now he had allowed Eisenhower’s and Dirksen’s checks to remain blank. Either he was reluctant to transform his favor to Ike into a quid pro quo or he was waiting for an issue important enough to warrant filling them in. He did not cash them when Republican senators, led by Dirksen, defeated or delayed many of his major domestic initiatives. Nor did he cash them after Dirksen criticized his policies for increasing deficit spending and the size of the federal bureaucracy and called his New Frontier “nothing more than a bright ribbon wrapped around the oldest and most discredited political package on earth—the centralization of power,” a centralization that was “the essence of socialism.”
He and Dirksen were political adversaries but personal friends. They were an unlikely pair. Dirksen’s flamboyant mannerisms, ornate vocabulary, and mellifluous voice had led to nicknames such as “Wizard of Ooze” and “Liberace of the Senate,” while Kennedy refused to throw his arms into the air and his speeches were templates of restraint. Dirksen had crossed the aisle to support his foreign policy initiatives, incurring the wrath of other Republicans. Kennedy repaid him by offering tepid support to his Democratic opponent in the 1962 midterm election. This had not prevented Dirksen from raising objections to the test ban treaty and civil rights bill. Like the treaty, which required sixty-seven votes for ratification, the civil rights bill needed sixty-seven senators willing to vote for cloture and end a filibuster. In both instances, Kennedy needed the support of liberal and moderate Republicans, who looked to Dirksen for leadership.
Dirksen, who by the standards of the time could be considered a moderate Republican, was prepared to support all of the provisions of Kennedy’s civil rights bill except its most symbolic and important one, the article outlawing discrimination in public facilities and accommodations. Without it, the bill was no longer a historic measure—the twentieth century’s Emancipation Proclamation.
While the test ban treaty was being negotiated in Moscow, Dirksen had issued a statement warning that it might amount to the “virtual surrender” of the United States to the Soviet Union. After it was initialed, he had recommended “extreme caution and a little bit of suspicion,” and refused an invitation to travel to Moscow with the U.S. delegation to witness its signing. Eisenhower had also been critical. Before boarding the Queen Elizabeth for a nostalgic return to England and Normandy he had told reporters that the Soviet Union’s decision to resume atmospheric testing in 1961, breaking an informal moratorium that had lasted since 1958, was reason enough to view the treaty with suspicion.
Although many in the administration and Congress believed the treaty would be ratified, Kennedy remained pessimistic. Several influential Democratic senators were threatening to propose reservations to its text that would make it unacceptable to the Soviet Union. J. Edgar Hoover was secretly lobbying against it, Edward Teller was condemning it as a Soviet victory, and the dean of Notre Dame Law School had declared that any treaty with “militant activated atheism” was inherently evil. Bobby Baker, the secretary to the Democratic majority leader and a legendary Capitol Hill fixer and prognosticator about whom the Washington Post had said “His nose counts were regarded by press gallery admirers as close to infallible,” told Kennedy that his count showed a majority of senators voting for it, but not necessarily two thirds. When Baker said the treaty might be a lost cause, Kennedy replied, “Maybe not.”
Kennedy faced two decisions on August 12: whether to fill in his blank checks with Ike and Dirksen, and if he did, whether to ask them to support the civil rights bill or test ban treaty. History might judge him harshly for calling in his markers from the Sherman Adams deal, but it might judge his first term a failure if neither measure passed Congress. He had concluded his inaugural address by saying, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love.” But what if a favorable judgment from history conflicted with the sure reward of a good conscience?
By August 12, it would have been impossible for him not to recognize that he had thwarted justice in the Adams case in the expectation of reaping a future reward. The month before, he had refused to intervene in a far less serious case of tax fraud in which the potential defendant had been James Landis, a former dean of Harvard Law School and a close friend of the Kennedy family for more than thirty years. Due to a combination of negligence and psychological problems, Landis had failed to file returns between 1956 and 1960. He submitted delinquent returns in 1961 and 1962, paying back taxes and fines. Had he not been so close to the Kennedys, the IRS might have closed the case, but to avoid any appearance of favoritism it referred him to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. Bobby Kennedy recused himself, leaving the decision to Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
During a telephone call on July 25, Kennedy told Katzenbach that he had consulted his attorney Clark Clifford, who had concluded that Landis would have to be indicted. “I guess we have to proceed,” he said, his reluctance evident in his voice. “Is that your judgment?”
“More damage not to go ahead,” Katzenbach replied.
“Five years [of not filing returns] is so serious that if anyone ever gets the idea that the President’s friends can get away with it, Christ, I think it would be an awful moral cracker to the Internal revenue, to taxpayers. The next time anybody got arrested, they’d say, ‘What the hell about Landis?’”
Landis pled guilty on August 2, and it could not have escaped Kennedy’s notice that he had helped Eisenhower’s friend Sherman Adams escape jail but had not saved his own friend from indictment for a less venal offense.
While walking in the Rose Garden with Dirksen on Monday, he finally filled in his blank checks. Faced with choosing between his ethics and history, he chose history; with choosing between a historic bill that began redressing centuries of wrongs and a treaty reducing the threat of a nuclear war, he chose the treaty.
He had told Sorensen that he would “gladly forfeit his reelection, if necessary for the sake of the test ban treaty,” and his ambassador to France, Charles (“Chip”) Bohlen, believed that he was “emotionally more wrapped up in the test ban than almost any other effort.” Glenn Seaborg, who headed the Atomic Energy Commission and met with him often that summer, thought he felt more passionately about it than any other measure sponsored by his administration, and called his determination to halt atmospheric testing and the spread of nuclear weapons “like a religion” to him. The treaty was neither perfect nor comprehensive, but it was a start. On July 31, he had told Seaborg and other senior government scientists that he believed the treaty would give the United States as much as eighteen months “to explore the possibility of détente with the Soviet Union—which may not come to anything but which quite possibly could come to something.” Because the United States and Soviet Union were unable to agree on protocols for policing a ban on underground testing, its official title was “The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” but it was still more important to him than the civil rights bill. His decision proved that he had meant it when he said, “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”
He told Dirksen, “Ike said I had coin in his bank, and you say I have coin in yours. Ev, I must write a check on you and Ike.”
Dirksen agreed that they “owed him one.”
“Ev, I want you to reverse yourself and come out for the treaty. I also want Ike’s public endorsement of the treaty before the Senate votes. We’ll call it square on that other matter.”
“Mr. President, you’re a hell of a horse trader,” Dirksen said. “But I’ll honor my commitment, and I’m sure that General Eisenhower will.”
Both men kept their word. For Dirksen it was probably just another deal. But it left such a sour taste in Eisenhower’s mouth that during his first conversation with President Johnson on November 23 he complained, somewhat boorishly under the circumstances, about the “tactics” of the IRS and Kennedy’s Justice Department.
After Dirksen left, Kennedy swam in the White House pool and went upstairs to the family quarters. Sometime that evening, before or after drinking four Bloody Marys, he called an attractive Hungarian émigrée whom he had met at a dinner party. He had included her in White House events, but she knew about his womanizing and had resisted his attempts to seduce her. When he persuaded her to come to the White House in June, on the pretext of helping him pronounce some German phrases he wanted to use in Berlin, they had met alone in the family quarters and he had behaved impeccably, saying as she left, “See, I’ve been good.” Perhaps he simply wanted companionship again. He sounded depressed when he called, and after she refused his invitation to the White House they had a lengthy conversation during which he asked why God would let a child die.
That evening (or possibly the next day) he sat on the second-floor White House balcony with Mimi Beardsley, a young intern who had become his lover the year before. He picked up one condolence letter after another from a stack on the floor and read them out loud as tears rolled down his cheeks. He did not have sexual relations with Beardsley then, or ever again following Patrick’s death, although she continued seeing him and accompanying him on trips. She believed, she wrote later, that Patrick’s death had “filled him not only with grief but with an aggrieved sense of responsibility to his wife and family,” and that afterward, he began “obeying some private code that trumped his reckless desire for sex—at least with me.”
Tuesday, August 13
On Tuesday morning Kennedy complained to his chief White House physician, Rear Admiral George Burkley, about some discomfort in his right eye and a bout of abdominal cramps and loose stools. He blamed his distress on “an emotional factor,” admitting that drinking four Bloody Marys had probably “not helped.” Burkley found his eye normal. After he returned several hours later to say it felt “itchy,” Burkley referred him to an ophthalmologist, who also found nothing wrong. He reported the president’s abdominal problems to a gastroenterologist, writing in a note, “We should stress the fact that emotional tension rather than food could be the cause of the distress and that no actual organic change was taking place.”
None of Kennedy’s illnesses had proved more persistent and resistant to treatment, or led to as many lengthy hospitalizations, as those involving his digestive system. He had first experienced severe cramping at the age of thirteen, and between 1934 and 1940 had undergone months of invasive tests and hospitalizations. He complained to Lem Billings from one hospital that he was “suffering terribly,” had “a gut ache all the time,” and had endured eighteen enemas in three days. Few teenagers suffering his symptoms in Depression-era America would have been subjected to so much expensive and ultimately futile medical attention. His physicians diagnosed spastic colitis (now known as irritable bowel syndrome) and recommended stress reduction and antispasmodics. A gastroenterologist at the Leahy Clinic in Boston put him on a dietary regimen that he would follow for the rest of his life, calling for small meals and bland, milky foods. He devoured ice cream, sometimes drank glasses of heavy cream instead of milk, and loved fish chowder made with large quantities of butter and milk. It was a calamitous diet for anyone suffering from lactose intolerance, as he probably was, and raised his cholesterol to stratospheric levels.
The public saw a vigorous and youthful man who suffered recurrent backaches, an affliction bedeviling millions of middle-aged men, but his close friends and advisers knew a man who had seemingly suffered years of illness and pain without complaint. The diplomat George Ball praised him for bearing his ailments “with gallantry and with no perceptible loss of alertness,” Arthur Schlesinger was impressed that he never uttered “a word of self-pity or complaint,” and Ted Sorensen wrote, “In retrospect, it is amazing that, in all those years, he never complained about his ailments.” He certainly considered himself a stoic. When asked at a news conference to comment on the complaints of army reservists recalled to active duty, he said, “There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war, and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country. . . . It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair. Some people are sick and others are well.”
His physicians, however, knew a man who was preoccupied with his health and intent on micromanaging his treatment, who demanded remedies for every tickle in his throat, itch in his eye, grumble in his stomach, sleepless night, aching knee, and throbbing muscle—the kinds of complaints most people treat with aspirin, ice packs, and Pepto-Bismol. He was not a hypochondriac, merely someone who after a lifetime of illnesses and pains had become accustomed to seeking treatment for minor complaints. His principal health problems were real and painful. He frequently woke with cramping and diarrhea, and urinary tract infections had plagued him for decades, sometimes causing a burning sensation when he urinated or ejaculated. He was allergic to dust, animals, and certain foods, and afflicted by gum disease, deafness in one ear, and rapidly worsening vision. Athletic injuries, PT 109, and risky surgeries had aggravated a chronic back condition stemming from one leg being shorter than the other, and during much of his first years in office, he could not sit for any length of time, touch his toes, or put on his socks, and often used crutches in private. He also suffered from Addison’s disease, a debilitating and potentially life-threatening malfunctioning of the adrenal glands that had weakened his immune system to such an extent that a routine illness could turn serious, a factor undoubtedly contributing to his tendency to fuss over minor ailments.
He spent several hours every day attempting to alleviate his discomfort and pain. He wore hot mustard packs, soaked in hot baths, and swam twice daily in a White House pool that he kept heated to 90 degrees. Every morning he strapped himself into a canvas corset, anchoring it with Ace bandages looped around his chest and thighs; every afternoon he took a long nap, changing into pajamas, darkening the room, and lying under the covers on a heating pad. He spent a half hour daily in a small White House gym, following a regimen of back-strengthening exercises. He swallowed a pharmacopoeia of capsules and pills—steroids for his Addison’s, Lomotil and antispasmodics for his diarrhea and spastic colon, antibiotics for his urinary tract infections, vitamin B supplements, salt tablets, Choloxin for his high cholesterol, and antihistamines for his allergies. He cloaked his health under a carapace of secrecy. When he hired Dr. Travell he told her, “It’s best if you don’t go into any [of my] medical problems with Jackie. I don’t want her to think she’s married either an old man or a cripple,” adding, “Ted Sorensen is the only person here [in his Senate office] who is fully informed about my health. Discuss it with no one else.”
During a taped January 5, 1960, interview with Ben Bradlee and Jim Cannon for a book they were writing about contemporary politics, he essentially confirmed that he had Addison’s and was willing to lie to keep it secret. After Bradlee mentioned how green and sickly he had looked while running for Congress, he admitted suffering from “malaria and some adrenal deficiency.” When Bradlee asked if that meant Addison’s, he said, “Jack Anderson [who then worked for the influential political columnist Drew Pearson] asked me today if I had it. . . . I said, ‘No. God, a guy with Addison’s disease looks brown and everything. Christ, that’s the sun.” At this, everyone in the room had a good laugh.
When supporters of Senator Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s principal rival for the nomination in 1960, spread rumors about his health, he responded with a misleading letter drafted by Travell and signed by her and his endocrinologist, Eugene Cohen. It called his health “excellent” and said, “Your vitality, endurance and resistance to infection is [sic] above average. Your ability to handle an exhausting workload is unquestionably superior.” It skirted the Addison’s issue by stating that “your adrenal glands do function,” side-stepping the question of how well they functioned. He told reporters at his first postelection press conference that he had never had Addison’s disease, his back had been fine since his operation in 1955, and his health was “excellent.” None of these statements was even remotely true.
His robust physical appearance made it easier to dismiss the rumors about his poor health. When the journalist Hugh Sidey joined him for a swim in the White House pool, Sidey was impressed by his strong and handsome physique, calling his body “graceful and well-proportioned: broad shoulders, narrow hips and well-muscled legs,” yet scarred from his war injuries and back operation. Senator Fulbright, who saw him naked in a locker room after a round of golf, described him as “a very strongly built fellow” who had “tremendously strong arms and legs,” adding that, “surprisingly enough he looked much stronger and better built naked.”
Of the two secrets that could have ended his political career—his health and his womanizing—his health posed a greater threat because there were medical files that could confirm his illnesses. A month after Cohen and Travell released their letter, intruders broke into their offices on the same weekend. At Travell’s office they were thwarted by a steel door with hardened locks that protected the room containing her patients’ records. Cohen arrived Monday morning to find his cabinets open and the files of patients whose last names began with a “K” scattered across the floor. Luckily, he had given Kennedy a pseudonym beginning with another letter.*
• • •
KENNEDY’S FABLED DETACHMENT failed him when it came to his health. Otherwise, he might have recognized the harmful effects of the rivalries between his physicians, and of his addiction to questionable treatments promising rapid but temporary relief. His search for a quick fix had led him to Dr. Max Jacobson, a New York physician who injected his wealthy and famous patients with “vitamin shots” laced with amphetamines. On multiple occasions between 1960 and 1962 Jacobson gave him a cocktail of vitamins and speed. Dr. Burkley became so alarmed that he wrote a stern letter cautioning, “You cannot be permitted to receive therapy from irresponsible doctors like M.J., who by form of stimulating injections offer some temporary help.” He added that Jacobson’s injections should not be taken by “responsible individuals who at any split second may have to decide the fate of the universe.”
Janet Travell’s expertise was in pharmacology and skeletal muscle pain. She had placed lifts in Kennedy’s shoes to equalize the disparity between his legs, recommended a hard mattress, tinkered with the height and pitch of his chairs, and suggested a rocking chair. She treated his back pain with anesthetics, temporarily alleviating his pain without addressing the underlying condition. Dr. Cohen had recommended her, but by November 1961 he had become so alarmed by her behavior that he told Kennedy he believed that she posed “a potential threat to your well-being” and urged him to dismiss her. In February 1964, Cohen unburdened himself to Dr. Burkley in a single-spaced four-page letter that could have been describing intrigues at the Russian imperial court. He said he was writing because he was horrified that Travell was being retained by the Johnson administration, and he wanted to record some facts about the White House tenure of a woman he called “a deceiving, incompetent, publicity-mad physician.”
He wrote that during the transition he had suggested another doctor for the post of White House physician. Travell, however, had accompanied Kennedy to Palm Beach, where she “wormed her way into having him agree that she be his physician,” despite being unqualified for the position because she was not an internist. Several days later, the president reversed himself and asked Cohen to choose a physician. He had arranged for a Dr. Donnally to attend to him during the inauguration, but Travell continued lobbying for the position, informing Cohen that Mrs. Kennedy disliked Donnally. Cohen succumbed and endorsed Travell because, given the secrecy surrounding the president’s medical background, there was no time to find another physician who could be trusted. He told himself that since Admiral Burkley, an internist who had treated Eisenhower, was on the White House medical staff, Kennedy would receive adequate care.
Within days he regretted his decision. Travell immediately called in reporters, providing them with material for several articles and leading Cohen to conclude that she was obsessed with publicity, a dangerous situation given the president’s medical history. After Kennedy injured his back during a tree-planting ceremony in Ottawa in May 1961 and Travell’s injections failed to alleviate his pain, Cohen recommended that he consult Dr. Hans Kraus, a renowned New York orthopedic surgeon and legendary mountaineer, medical contrarian, and fierce advocate for the medical benefits of physical fitness. (Kraus’s pioneering studies on the connection between exercise and muscular health had so impressed President Eisenhower that he had instituted the President’s Council on Youth Fitness and made Kraus a founding member.) Kraus had also developed a series of exercises to strengthen the back muscles that had proved effective in cases like Kennedy’s. Travell resisted summoning him to Washington and capitulated only in the fall of 1961 after Burkley and Cohen threatened to go to the president and charge her with incompetence.
When Kraus examined Kennedy in October 1961, he noted that his leg muscles were “as taut as piano wires,” he could not perform a single sit-up, and his fingertips dangled above his knees when he tried touching his toes. “You will be a cripple soon if you don’t start exercising,” he told him. “Five days a week. And you need to start now.”
Kraus flew to Washington three times a week to supervise his exercises and train White House therapists to handle additional daily sessions. He insisted on complete cooperation from the president and his medical staff as a condition of his employment. There were to be no second opinions, interference from other physicians, or interruptions during his exercise sessions. He prescribed a daily routine of breathing exercises, leg raises, stretches, knee bends, and toe touches, later adding weights, sit-ups, and leg spreads. After a month Kennedy was more mobile, his pain had diminished, and Kraus noticed, “a definite increase of strength and flexibility. . . . Patient is now able to do knee bends all the way down and get up without difficulty. He can walk well without shoes and without brace while he used to support his left hip and limp.” He reduced the frequency of his visits and told Kennedy his back brace was an unnecessary psychological crutch. He noted that he hoped to persuade him to discard it, “in a not too distant future,” writing in Kennedy’s file that when he did, “a very long step will have been taken toward the ultimate goal, namely, having a healthy person with occasional discomfort rather than an invalid.”
In November 1961, Kennedy asked Ken O’Donnell to fire Travell. O’Donnell delegated the task to Cohen, who wrote Kennedy on November 12 that he regretted he had been “burdened with initiating a housecleaning in your medical staff.” Speaking of Travell, he said, “In spite of repeated advice against her personal publicity . . . her own interests were placed above yours.” Cohen flew to Washington and was flabbergasted when Travell demanded several years’ worth of severance pay. On Christmas Day, a Washington newspaper reported that she was leaving and Salinger informed Cohen that he was about to issue a statement announcing her resignation. He called back an hour later to say that Travell had just met with the president and would not be resigning. Furthermore, the White House would be denying the newspaper story. “I hate to use the word blackmail,” Cohen wrote in his 1964 letter to Burkley, “but essentially this is how she has kept her tentacles stuck to the White House.”*
Just as Kennedy’s womanizing made it risky for him to fire J. Edgar Hoover, the perilous state of his health made it too dangerous to dismiss Travell. Unlike Hoover, she kept her title but not her power. Burkley became Kennedy’s White House physician in all but name, Kraus assumed sole responsibility for his back, and Travell was relegated to treating Jackie and the children.
Kennedy’s back improved throughout the winter of 1962, and he told Kraus, “I wish I could have known you ten years ago.” By April, Kraus had reduced his visits to several times a month and their relationship had ripened into a friendship. Kennedy admired mental and physical courage, and Kraus had demonstrated both, becoming the first climber to pioneer difficult climbing routes in the Shawangunks and Dolomites. (Kennedy was probably also impressed that James Joyce had taught Kraus English, a fact Kraus was not shy about sharing.) Kraus was impressed that during the Cuban missile crisis Kennedy had come to the White House dispensary, where he was waiting for his scheduled exercise session, and had taken his hand and said, “I know, Doctor, you’ve come a long way to take care of me, but please forgive me. Tonight, I simply have no time.” He was floored that on the most important day of his presidency, he had taken the time to apologize to him personally. “You know I really liked Kennedy before that incident,” he said. “But after that, I liked him even more.”
Kraus returned to his office from a weekend in 1962 to find his cabinets open and his files scattered across the floor. Because he had labeled Kennedy’s file “K” and kept it in a separate drawer, the burglars had left empty-handed. Many in the White House suspected the FBI, the Soviets, or the GOP, in order of probability. Kennedy had scrambler phones installed in Kraus’s office, apartment, and country home, and whenever Kraus needed to consult Cohen and Burkley about the president’s condition he left his office and used a pay phone.
By the summer of 1963, Kraus considered Kennedy cured. He was playing golf, had not experienced any back pain during his strenuous European tour, and could toss his son in the air. Kraus remained on call for emergencies and saw Kennedy sporadically, but had he been a regular patient he would have discontinued their appointments. Kennedy had once told Jackie plaintively, “I wish I had more good times,” meaning more healthy times. By that standard, the summer of 1963 was a very good time. The gap between his robust physical appearance and the actual state of his health had narrowed to the point that he felt almost as well as he looked. Desensitization shots had reduced his allergies to animals and dust, making him less susceptible to sinusitis and other respiratory infections, his Addison’s was being managed with cortisone, and he boasted of feeling better than at any time in his adult life. All that remained was to discard his back brace, a device that made him sit bolt upright in chairs and in the backseats of limousines.
Wednesday, August 14
When Kennedy arrived in Jackie’s room at Otis to bring her home to Squaw Island, he found her upset that she could not persuade her private nurse, Luella Hennessey, to spend the rest of the year with her at the White House. Hennessey was a cheerful and confident fifty-seven-year-old spinster who had been caring for Kennedys since 1937, when she nursed thirteen-year-old Patricia following an emergency appendectomy. After Bobby was admitted to the same hospital several days later with pneumonia, Joe and Rose asked her to come to Cape Cod and see both Patricia and Bobby through their convalescence. She soon became a family fixture, summoned when anyone became ill and often serving as a surrogate mother while Rose was away on her frequent shopping trips abroad. Once the Kennedy children began having their own children, she called every year to see who was expecting so she could plan her vacations around their delivery dates. Since the birth of Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen in 1951 she had been present at the births of eighteen Kennedy children, including Caroline and John. She did not deliver or nurse the babies but looked after their mothers, sitting in their hospital rooms, reassuring them, and attending to their needs.
During all her years of nursing Kennedys only Jack had imagined that Hennessey might have greater ambitions and talents, and he was paying her tuition for a course at Boston College that would prepare her to open a school for mentally challenged children. She had arrived at Otis hours after Patrick was born and had been at Jackie’s side ever since. She had refused her invitation to come to the White House only because it would have meant postponing her studies at Boston College. Forced to choose between Hennessey’s education and his wife’s recovery, Kennedy chose his wife. “There are ninety-six thousand R.N.s [registered nurses] in this country,” he told Hennessey. “And I think ninety-five thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine would jump at the chance to go to the White House for the winter!”
“But you see, Jack, that’s the difference between the other nurses and me, and that’s why you want me,” she said. She proposed staying with Jackie through August. If Jackie still felt she needed her after that (it turned out that she did not), she would postpone her studies. “But I’m sure after having my company for a whole month she will be so fine I won’t be needed.”
Jackie presented the hospital staff with framed and signed lithographs of the White House and said gamely, “You’ve been so wonderful to me that I’m coming back here next year to have another baby. So you better be ready for me.”
Kennedy gave an impromptu speech thanking the nurses and airmen gathered in her suite. Given the ruckus that he had raised the previous month about the renovations to these rooms, he should have felt sheepish when he saw Jackie’s standard-issue hospital bed, wooden nightstand, and gooseneck lamps. The improvements had been as modest as the furniture. Walls had been washed instead of repainted, a portable dishwasher rolled into a small kitchen, a room converted into a nursery, some carpeting replaced, and a couch and chairs sent to be refurbished at Jordan Marsh, the venerable Boston department store. The Secret Service had demanded the most expensive changes, insisting that an open corridor be glassed in, bulletproof steel mesh installed over the windows, and air conditioners rented, since the windows would have to remain shut whenever the president visited.
He had hit the roof when he read about the renovations in the Washington Post. He telephoned General Godfrey McHugh, his Air Force attaché, called them a “fuck-up,” and thundered, “Are they crazy up there? I want to find out what we paid for that furniture and I want it to go back to Jordan Marsh!” He was particularly incensed by a photograph of the Otis public information officer standing next to Jackie’s bed. He was a “silly bastard,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t have him running a cat house.”
His tantrums usually exploded suddenly and disappeared just as quickly. This time he stayed mad. Later that morning he called Assistant Secretary of Defense Arthur Sylvester and raged, “I’d like to send that goddamned furniture . . . right back to Jordan Marsh on an Air Force truck this afternoon with that captain on it. What about transferring his ass out of here. . . . And that silly fellow who had his picture taken next to the bed, I’d have him go up to Alaska, too.” He said he was afraid that Congress would seize on the renovations as an excuse for cutting his defense budget, but that was unlikely, and insufficient to explain his fury.
A month earlier he had become furious while visiting his second cousin Mary Ryan in Ireland. After discovering that Ambassador Matthew McCloskey had used embassy funds to pave her yard, he told Fay, “To think that big blockhead [McCloskey] could insult this wonderful woman by thinking that her yard wasn’t good enough to receive me.” He threatened a punishment similar to making the Air Force officer ride on the truck returning the furniture, saying, “I’ll tell you what, McCloskey will pay for that concrete going in and he’ll pay for that concrete coming out, out of his own pocket.” This never happened, but like the furniture, Mary Ryan’s yard had struck a nerve.
The Kennedys were probably the richest Irish American family in the country. Although their money was new, earned by Joe Kennedy on Wall Street and in Hollywood, he and Rose had raised their children in the style of old-money Boston Brahmins. He knew that those whom Rose called “the nice people of Boston” might never accept him, but they might accept his children if he instilled the proper old-money values in them, raising them on the Yankee principle that living simply was evidence of a virtuous life. Rose reinforced the message, telling them, “Money is never to be squandered or spent ostentatiously. Some of the greatest people in history have lived lives of the greatest simplicity,” and repeating St. Luke’s admonition “Of those to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
After Joe Kennedy was blackballed from joining the country club in Cohasset, a WASP summer resort, he bought a rambling house with a broad lawn running down to the water in Hyannis Port. It was comfortable but simply furnished, and after years of use by his large and rambunctious family, many of the sofas and chairs could have used a trip to Jordan Marsh. He did not give his children bicycles until their friends had them, and enforced the same rule about cars. After Ted acquired a loud horn that blasted the sound of a mooing cow as he drove around Harvard, he wrote him, “It’s all right to struggle to get ahead of the masses by good works, by good reputation and hard work, but it certainly isn’t by doing things that [could lead people to say] ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’”
Kennedy inherited his parents’ dislike of ostentation. When he and Lem Billings (who was on a tight budget) traveled across Europe, they picnicked and ate in cheap cafes, and either camped or slept in hostels and flophouses. After visiting the Duke of Devonshire, whose late son had been married to his sister Kathleen, Kennedy noted approvingly in his diary that the duke “does have great integrity and lives simply with simple pleasures.” When he came to Washington as a young congressman, he rented a small house in Georgetown, seldom entertained, wore old chinos and sneakers to the office, and threw on a food-stained tie before appearing on the House floor. His legal residence in Boston was a small apartment on Bowdoin Street with wobbly tables, broken chairs, and an ancient Victrola. Visitors were shocked that someone of his wealth and background would live in such a dump. But since Rose had moved the Kennedy children around like hotel guests, never giving them their own permanent rooms, Bowdoin Street, in a way, really washis home, where he kept his yearbooks and Navy sword.
After Jackie taught him to appreciate fine clothes and furniture, he began offering fashion tips to friends, warning them away from button-down collars and brown shoes with dark suits. The day after his inauguration, he toured the White House with the economist John Kenneth Galbraith and delivered a caustic commentary on the low quality of the furnishings, telling him, “I hope to make this house the repository of the best.” When Galbraith related this to Kay Halle, a friend of the Kennedy family, she imagined the president marching upstairs and saying to Jackie, “You’ve got great taste. I know the job for you.” He later gave his friend Joe Alsop, a newspaper columnist, a similar tour, taking him into Ike’s former bedroom and pointing out that the only decent piece was a huge highboy that, he added with a wicked grin, blocked the door to Mamie’s bedroom.
Despite his newfound connoisseurship, he never lost his aversion to displaying his wealth. He bought monogrammed handkerchiefs but folded them so the initials were hidden, and he banned photographers from taking pictures of his private cabin on Air Force One because he thought it looked too much “like a rich man’s plane.” Jackie’s lavish spending was a constant irritant, as was the weekend house she had bullied him into building in Virginia hunt country. While it was under construction they gave Paul Fay a tour. Fay thought they had skimped too much and encouraged Jackie to increase the size of the living room windows. Kennedy pulled him aside and said, “Are you out of your mind? Can you imagine what’s going to happen if I come in with a house that costs over sixty thousand? . . . You were down in West Virginia [where he had run in the 1960 Democratic primary]. You know what the conditions were like down there. Can you see what those people in West Virginia are going to think when here I am building myself a house? I’ve got a White House already. I’ve got the one on the Cape—my family’s house—and we’ve been down in Florida, and now I’m building this one out in Middleburg, Virginia.” He had agreed to build a modest ranch house costing under $60,000, but as the costs mounted during construction, he hired an accountant to shadow the contractor and make sure he bought the cheapest materials.
Many politicians affect a bogus egalitarianism, but Kennedy’s was genuine. It predated his political career and was evident in his choice of friends. In the Navy, he had preferred the enlisted men and junior officers to the brass, and unlike many PT boat commanders, he worked alongside his crew, scraping and painting. Sam Elfand, a poor farm boy from Tennessee who was under his command during the war and remained a lifelong friend, remembered him as being “not a stuck-up individual” who was “receptive to everybody.” One of Kennedy’s complaints about Eisenhower was that he had ditched his old friends when he became famous. “He is a terribly cold man,” he told his White House aide Arthur Schlesinger. “All his golfing pals are rich men he has met since 1945.” He also criticized Eisenhower for attacking his proposal for providing medical care to the aged as socialized medicine, “and then getting into his government limousine and heading out to Walter Reed [the army hospital],” and was horrified when, speaking about the Cuban refugees in the United States, Eisenhower told him, “Of course, they’d be so great if you could just ship a lot of them in trucks from Miami and use ’em as servants for twenty dollars a month.”
U. E. Baughman, who headed the Secret Service when Kennedy took office, thought that his egalitarian spirit surpassed even President Truman’s, a surprising observation to make about a man who had a million-dollar trust fund, had been dressed by a valet for much of his adult life, and had rarely if ever cooked his own breakfast, cleaned his own house, or washed his own clothes. But like Truman, he had maintained close friendships with people of modest means, such as Dave Powers and his driver Muggsy O’Leary. Deirdre Henderson, who served as his informal liaison with the New England academic community, was struck by how people like Muggsy—the real people, the cops, the staff in the kitchen—instinctively felt that he liked them, and returned his affection. After spending a summer weekend in 1959 at the Newport estate of Jackie’s mother and stepfather while she was traveling in Italy, he wrote to Jackie, “I was taken into the kitchen and introduced to all the help, who were just over from Ireland, and found them much more attractive than the guests.” During his first congressional campaign, he looked down at an audience of stevedores and truckers and said to himself softly, “These are the kind of people I want to represent,” which may explain why Larry O’Brien, Ken O’Donnell, and Dave Powers, the triumvirate of Irishmen who had worked on so many of his campaigns and knew him so well, were certain he would have wanted what O’Brien called “a plain, inexpensive casket . . . one any average American might have.”
Photographs of him and Jackie walking arm-in-arm or holding hands are rare. When she kissed him during a campaign appearance in New York, he maneuvered her so that photographers missed it, ignoring their shouts of “Kiss her again, Senator,” and “Hug him, Jackie.” But when they descended the steps of the Otis base hospital on August 14, he was gripping her hand, and a photographer remarked that they walked to their car hand-in-hand, “like a couple of kids.” An old friend who saw the resulting photograph was stunned, realizing that in all the years she had known them she had never seen them hold hands, even in private.
After helping her climb inside the convertible, he rushed around to the other side and reached across the seat to grab her hand again. Jackie’s Secret Service agent Clint Hill called it “a small gesture but quite significant to those of us who were around them all the time,” adding that after Patrick’s death, he and other agents “noticed a distinctly closer relationship, openly expressed, between the President and Mrs. Kennedy.” Their hand-holding was not the only sign that their relationship had changed. Between August 14 and September 24, when she returned to Washington, he spent twenty-three nights with her at Cape Cod and Newport, sometimes flying up midweek, something he had never done before. Arthur Schlesinger sensed their reluctance to reveal their feelings falling away as they became, he said, “extremely close and affectionate.”
August 15–31, 1963
Thursday, August 15
Eisenhower began honoring his part of the Sherman Adams bargain while Kennedy was flying back to Washington. After the United States docked in New York, he announced at a press conference that although he would not reach a final conclusion about the test ban treaty before studying its full text, “Unless there is . . . some rather hard evidence that the Soviets are way ahead of us in something, or that the security of the United States would be endangered, then I would certainly be on the favorable side.” A frontpage headline in the New York Times the next day declared, “Eisenhower Hints He Backs Treaty,” and it was later reported that he had sent Senator Fulbright a letter formally announcing his support for the treaty.