Interview with Bob Dallek

tags: JFK, medical

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

HNN: The JFK Medical Files

It is Thursday morning. Five days since the Kennedy story landed him on the front page of the New York Times. And Bob Dallek sounds tired. Usually Bob talks in a loud booming voice. But so many people have been contacting him about the Kennedy disclosures that I find I have to strain to make out what he's saying. Everyone wants to talk to him. He's gotten calls from the media in Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. He's been on ABC's "Good Morning America" and "Charlie Rose." Bob Dallek, for the moment, is more in demand than the Kennedys themselves. The historian as public celebrity.

Radio shows across the country have been calling but Dallek's not doing radio. His publisher, Little Brown, tells him not to. Better to wait until the book comes out.

Earlier in the week, in the Times, columnist William Safire wondered why Little Brown had let the Kennedy medical secrets slip out now so far ahead of the book's publication. The book wasn't scheduled to appear until the fall (in time for the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination?). That the PR folks let this happen, he admonished, "shows how little some book publishers know about the news."

Actually, Dallek tells us, he had a good reason for getting out the news now. He had heard, he says, that at least one other historian may be given--or has already been given--access. "I didn't want anybody else to scoop me." Little Brown, he says, is "a little frustrated" and is now pushing the pub date up to the spring. But there are "lots of other new things in the book which they'll [be able] to trumpet."

Like what? Dallek doesn't say, but mentions in passing that he found a lot of interesting material about JFK's relationship with the military. The PT 109 hero didn't think highly of many the officials with whom he came in contact. You mean because of the Bay of Pigs? It was "more than the Bay of Pigs. He thought these guys were unreliable. ... They had cahones but no brains." Next spring, when the book appears, there will be a second article in the Atlantic Monthly. This one will deal with Vietnam and what Kennedy would have done there if he'd had a second term.

Dallek began his research on the book five years ago. About two years into the project he asked the three Kennedy people in charge of the medical records--Ted Sorensen, Burke Marshall, and Samuel Beer--if he could see them. Thirty-six years had passed since Kennedy's death. Other presidential libraries had opened their medical records. It was time for the Kennedy records to be opened.

The committee oddly enough did not know what was in the records and asked a Boston physician and family friend to review them. Dallek still doesn't know who it was. The doctor spent a year going through them little by little. At the end of a year he told the committee to open the records. There was nothing there that should be kept secret any longer.

Burke took home several of Dallek's books to read and was pleased to discover that Dallek isn't an ax-grinder. Sorensen agreed to sit down and talk. They got along. Dallek shrewdly declined to press Sorensen about his role in Kennedy's medical cover-up. "I didn't accost him," Dallek says. "He didn't manifest any regrets for lying or the cover-up. He thinks John Kennedy was a wonderful man."

Finally, they gave him the go-ahead. Dallek is quick to add, "I should emphasize there were no preconditions." And in fact the article in the Atlantic Monthly raises disturbing questions about Kennedy's truthfulness. One section is plainly labeled, "The Cover Up." Some critics have suggested that Dallek in the article published by the Atlantic uses the material to reinforce the old and fading image of Kennedy as a hero by emphasizing the president's courage in the face of physical pain and discomfort. Dallek offers no apologies. "My book is critical. I don't pull any punches."

The records were finally opened last spring at the Kennedy library. Present were an archivist, deputy archivist, Dallek and Dr. Jeffrey Kelman, whom Dallek called in for assistance. (Kelman's wife and Dallek's are old friends.) Kelman brought a portable view box to review Kennedy's x rays. For the next two days the pair poured over the records, Dallek taking thirty pages of handwritten notes. (He was forbidden to use a Xerox machine.)

Most of the records consisted of reports collected by White House physician Janet Travell. They were "quite detailed" and included day-by-day accounts. They did not include anything about Max Jacobson, the notorious New York doctor who prescribed uppers for Kennedy. Most astonishingly, says Dallek, the records appeared uncensored. "I thought I'd look at sanitized records. I didn't know they'd show me the actual [materials]."

Since the Times story's appearance Dallek says he's received dozens of emails. One in particular stands out. Dr. Peter Green, the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, suggested that Kennedy's symptoms seemed to mirror the symptoms of patients suffering from celiac's disease, a disorder particularly common in Ireland. Dallek says he is not preoccupied with the question of how Kennedy came to fall ill but will now include a paragraph about celiac's in the text of his book. (Dr. Green subsequently prepared an article about celiac's for HNN.)

The book is long. Dallek jokingly refers to it as a "doorstop." It is now in copy editing. By spring it will be on bookstore shelves: An Unfinished Life.

And how does Dallek feel about all the publicity? With the scandals of Ambrose and Goodwin in mind, he says, "a historian playing clean pool is getting a good reaction."

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More Comments:

Jeff Kelly - 1/16/2005

"I wqould agree to the coverup and the history of injury he had."
As your note suggests, family and friends knew about these injuries. They would then be as much a part of the "coverup" as JFK himself would be. I cannot and do not reject your observations however I do reject categorically the premise put forth by journalists in recent years that there was some "massive coverup of a severe and/or fatal disease JFK," especially since as most Celiac sufferers JFK did not know what his condition was due to the ignorance of doctors on the matter. This premise is used to conclude that JFK fooled the public on such a scale as to be unbelievable or inconceivable today. That is hyperbole at the very least in my judgment.
As for Addison's Disease, especially before age 13, I also categorically reject that notion--and there is good medical information as to why, although the reasons tend to be more esoteric than rumor and innuendo and repeating the misdiagnosis of "Addison's Disease" tends to be. Immune deficiencies can come from many sources and what is known is he was very prone to infections of all kinds. Malabsorption from celiac sprue will certainly accomplish that. I know about these issues personally, because in my early twenties a physician suspected adrenal insufficiency, aka Addison's Disease, and as an alternative diagnosis the common psychiatric crap. My cortisol levels were fine, the test this doctor suggested no other physician had ever heard of, and the suspicion was never proven. Neither he nor any other physician over the next 25 years mentioned Celiac Sprue, which it turned out to be.
Re the "Irish" relative who "told many tales", those phrases conjure up something different in my mind than standards of investigative journalism, although these stories and vignettes can be helpful in understanding the situation and placing it in an overall context.

Tathiana Maria Dallek - 7/3/2003

Gostaria de saber se o Sr. Dallek tem parentes no Brasil. pois afinal de contas temos o mesmo sobrenome, cujo sobrenome é dificilmente encontrado, eu em particular não conheço outra pessoa que seje que tenha este mesmo sobrenome e que não seje parente.
Tathiana Mª Dallek, filha de Francisco L. Dallek, filho de Luis Dallek, filho de Estanislau Dallek, nascido em Santo Ângelo no estado do Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil.

Martha Stafford - 5/13/2003

Regarding Mr. Kennedy's dalliances, I have eye-witness proof they are true. I was a Senate staffer in 1959 and attended a private party aboard the presidential yacht "The Sequoia" of which Mr. Kennedy, then a Senator, was an attendee. There were only 5 persons present. If Mr. Dallek is interested, I would be pleased to talk with him.

victor marques - 5/13/2003

Regarding the Addison's disease John Kennedy has, it is new information he has since he was teenger..at the age of 13. I believe his illness occurred long before that.

You see, Joseph F Simons, my Irish father in law on my wife side told many tales about his 6th distant cousin- J.Kennedy and football rival- Choate School he usually played against. Joe and john played quarterback for each team and Joe bragged defeating his team three years in a row. Joe also played lineback to substitue the another injured teammate and have sacked him occasion. In one of the game, John kennedy was sacked and injured his back (Joe was not part of the incident/rumble). Eventually he was brought to the hospital by ambulance(I couldn't recall the name of two hospitals in the city of Hartford, CT he went to at that time.) The following year, he again walked limping during the game. From this day on, Joe kept telling everyone his injury doesn't begin at the war. I have the pictures of John playing quarterback against American School for the Deaf- West Hartford, CT. There is one he limped off the field.

Another interesting point, Joe was telling me John injured his back during the brawl in the bus on school campus. I could recall where it occurred ( I think it is at Harvard. That is another example of chronic back pain.

In that situation regarding cover up on back condition, he believed it occurred long before he graduated from Choate School. the time frame the author suspected John keenedy had since would make lot sense that fit to Joe's testimony. I woulkd agree to the cover-up and the history of injury he had.

If you desired to get the story from him. It is unforunatately he passed away in 1995 at the age of 79 years of heart attack.

Victor Marques -CT

Jeff Kelly - 12/25/2002

"Medicine today is more careful and cautious than in an age where technology seem(ed) to hold the solution to everything instantly." I assume you are talking about the past in the latter half of the above sentence thus referring to the era in which JFK was treated with surgeries and so forth.
I agree that in SOME ways medicine is more cautious today, but not PRIMARILY as a result of moving away from technology(which is not the case in any event;technology is here to stay in medicine). The MAIN reason medicine is so cautious today is something called Malpractice Liability and the economics thereof. Medicine today is primarily a BUSINESS and operates from the business model; whereas in the past it operated from morality and a sense of duty.
Neither did technology seem to hold the solution to everything instantly in the past;on many levels old fashioned remedies were being practiced more and on a more sound basis than today.
Still, your conclusion makes some sense, especially in terms of the Kennedys wanting to control everything in their lives by taking action--no matter at times how ill-advised, self-centered, or in some cases, "reckless". In the case of JFK, it was a simple matter of "the best money could buy" being abysmal failures in reaching an accurate diagnosis and thus the optimal treatment.

Susan Ikenberry - 11/29/2002

My AP history class was lucky enough two years ago to have Robert Dallek as a guest speaker. The physician who has worked most closely with him, Dr. Kelman, had a son in the class. We heard the whole story, and said not a word to anyone for the two years between then and the time it came out. I'm proud of that. But more importantly, I think, the evidence made sense in the context of the Kennedys. If you look at other decisions Joseph Kennedy made for his chilren, you see that he was quick to seek medical solutions, presumably the best that money could buy. My class and I were inclined to take a very different message away from this story, one that had more to do with the sense that medicine today is more careful and cautious than in an age where technology seem to hold the solution to everything instantly.