Though carefully hidden for years with the willing complicity of the press, the seriousness of President John F. Kennedy’s health problems becomes a serious public issue at about the same time as the concerted push to pass the Comprehensive Civil Rights Act gets going. Questions about cover-ups and wrongdoing in concealing JFK’s potentially debilitating health conditions begin to damage his credibility and trustworthiness with the public. In the meantime, disastrous Congressional elections in 1966 and the increasing intransigence of the Soviets make the prospects for the end of Kennedy’s second term bleak.
John F. Kennedy was, in the words of medical historians who have studied him, “a mess.” In this episode, all the major medical maladies associated with JFK are accurate to history: his Addison’s disease, first diagnosed in 1947; his severe back problems, which led to major surgery in the 1950s; and the complex web of other conditions that led him to use and possibly abuse drugs during his time in the White House. The doctors named in the episode, Jacobson and Travell, were real people; Dr. Jacobson really did lose his medical license, as stated in the story. The work of Presidential medical historian Dr. John Sotos, known as “Doctor Zebra,” linked above, was a key source consulted for writing the script for this episode.
The problems of Kennedy’s medical situation are seldom discussed as a factor that might have seriously affected his Presidency had he not been assassinated in 1963. In reality I believe that his medical issues and especially the cover-ups of them would almost inevitably have become a major scandal that could have led to his resignation. Kennedy did lie to voters in 1960 about not having Addison’s disease. The 1960s was a time when the unspoken rules of the press corps were changing. While contrary perhaps to others who might have thought about this, I believe Kennedy’s medical scandals would’ve gotten press attention more easily than his womanizing or sexual indiscretions. That’s the working thesis of this episode.
JFK really was given last rites aboard the Queen Mary in 1947, as stated at the opening of this episode.
Next Episode: June 6, 2021