How Bob Dallek Became a Prince in the Kingdom of Camelot

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Reeves is the author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy. His latest book is America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (Encounter, 2001).

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HNN: The JFK Medical Files

With the stampede over revelations about John F. Kennedy's medical problems now a memory from several weeks ago, this veteran historian would like to make some sober observations. Many journalists seemed to be encountering this issue for the first time. JFK was sickly? He was dependent on drugs? This was news?!

In fact, historians have long known in some detail about Kennedy's poor health, and of the fact that he, his wife, and several aides were routinely taking amphetamines administered by a quack physician. That the White House physician, Dr. Janet Travell, gave him injections of procaine for his pain is old news. So is the cover-up by Kennedy aides, family members, and sympathetic historians, who claimed that JFK was the embodiment of the vigor and action needed by the country after the allegedly sleepy and feeble Eisenhower administration.

However, I did not see a single story on the medication flap that linked the medical cover-up with the sexual escapade cover-up, documented, among other places, in my "A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy," and by Seymour Hersh's highly revealing interviews with Secret Service agents in "The Dark Side of Camelot." The truth is that no other presidential administration can begin to compete with this record of recklessness and deceit. Bill Clinton, bad as he was, was no match for JFK.

The information published in the Atlantic Monthly was provided by Kennedy special counsel, ghost writer, and hagiographer Ted Sorensen to Robert Dallek, a much-published historian who spent 30 years at UCLA and now teaches at Boston University. Why now? And why Mr. Dallek?

The tax-supported Kennedy Library is the only presidential library that has a system of "donor committees," permitting the Kennedy family and its minions to control information. Many historians have been denied access to the president's medical records, and a great many other records as well. Disinterested historians have long known that the library is, above all, a shrine. Mr. Dallek persuaded the powers that be, in this case apparently acting through Mr. Sorensen, that he is "safe." The former told me in a private conversation not long ago that he is "trusted." (In an Atlantic interview available on the Internet, however, he claims that "the passage of time" was responsible for his good fortune.) Thus he was permitted to be the first "outsider" to see, but not copy, the medical records long hidden from others. He is now writing a book on foreign relations and has been given access to untold thousands of other documents historians have not seen.

Why do the Kennedy defenders who control the papers trust Mr. Dallek? Mr. Sorensen has said publicly that the historian was chosen in part for "his tremendous reputation." In fact, for years, Mr. Dallek has been an outspoken family fan. I was astounded to hear his almost unqualified praises of JFK and the Kennedy family on the C-Span presidential series. (C-Span reluctantly gave me 20 minutes of the some two hours of programming to attempt to present the other side.) I do not question Mr. Dallek's sincerity or integrity. But the point must be made that he has been approved by the inner ring in control of the Kennedy papers. These partisans are apparently convinced that his book on JFK, the first of at least two, will follow the "Camelot" line established by Mr. Sorensen and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The thinking of the inner ring appears to have been that the controversial medical information hidden in the Kennedy Library might become available one day (the speculations about Kennedy's health were becoming stronger, and documents outside the library were emerging), so better that it be given to a trusted historian than, as Mr. Sorensen put it, "to any Tom, Dick or Harry" who might wish to exploit it. Moreover, a physician who studied the documents before Mr. Dallek was of the opinion that the materials would make JFK appear heroic. Indeed, in the right hands.

The thesis that has already emerged from Mr. Dallek, in his writing and in his Internet interview, is that Kennedy's illnesses and medication show determination and courage above all. He extols "the quiet stoicism of a [president] struggling to endure extraordinary pain. . . Does this not also speak to his character, but in a more complex way?" He also contends that the already-documented promiscuity, which the most ardent Kennedy sycophants still deny, matters little if at all. The president, despite all, was brilliant, epic and tough. That's exactly, of course, what the Kennedys and their agents want to hear. In my judgment, this interpretation is far from the truth.

When I asked Mr. Dallek if others will have access to materials he has been and will be given, he replied, "No, not necessarily." So there will apparently be no way to check his footnotes or to study the presidential documents for alternative interpretations. I think this is scandalous. A way should be found, perhaps through the power of the purse, to force the Kennedy Library to open its vast holdings to all qualified scholars. The director of the Gerald Ford Library told me that nothing has been hidden in the institution he heads. Shouldn't that be the policy for all presidential libraries? I may be wrong about the Kennedys and Mr. Dallek may be right.

But would the best way to find out not be to open the files for all to see? Yes, even Tom, Dick and Harry.

This article was first published in the Wall Street Journal and is reprinted with permission.

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More Comments:

Jill - 12/26/2003

Did the Kennedy's ever donate or support any charites?
Were they selfish people who kept their riches inside of the family estate?

I am a supporter of the past Presidents and the senator Kennedy's. I wish Edward all the sucess he deserves throughout his career to continue to help those less fortunate.

Stefanie Beninato - 1/5/2003

Yes I agree with the article. Most knowledgable people know JFK was promiscuous and had health problems. I too call on the JFK library or those who control funding to require that the material in such a library be open to all legitimate researchers. Stefanie Beninato, Ph.D. and lover of the FIrst AMendment

Dave Chase - 1/3/2003

Thomas Reeves seems to be a very angry guy - he blames Mr. Dallek for policies of the Kennedy Library. He also implies that only the JFK Library hides information. Hasn't our current president issued an executive order sealing documents protecting his father's files. I also believe he has made his Texas gubinatorial records out of bounds for historians. Access is important for everyone and our preoccupation with things "Kennedy" is getting old - very old.

Reeves should be happy that an historian with the reputation of Robert Dallek had the access and not someone with an ax to grind.

Chris Osborne - 12/31/2002

I took Professor Dallek's Modern U.S. History upper division class back in 1981, when he was still teaching at UCLA. In this class he actually sought to debunk the Camelot myth formed in the wake of Kennedy's assassination. His lecture stated that JFK was actually weak in Presidential leadership vis-a-vis his dealings with Congress as compared to his successor Lyndon Johnson. He also assigned us a book on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations by Tom Wicker, which argued that JFK lost control of Congress very quickly, despite its having a Democratic Party majority in 1961 when he took office.
Thus I have to be somewhat skeptical of the idea of Professor Dallek as a promoter of Camelot--unless he has experienced a dramatic and favorable change of his thinking within the preceding 21 years.

Marc Rodriguez - 12/31/2002

I assume that this former University of Wisconsin, Parkside Professor supports the opening of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., presidential papers "for all to see!"