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A One-Man Civil War

JFK becomes a prism for nation's hopes and hatreds

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Forty years after John F. Kennedy's assassination, the American fascination with him remains powerful. Look no further than the extensive publicity and debate over historian Robert Dallek's new biography of our 35th president, whose blend of idealism and deceit still stir strong opinion.The latest round of controversy began when Dallek, six months before his book's release, wrote a cover story in Atlantic Monthly filled with intriguing details gleaned from previously sealed Kennedy medical records. The scroll of serious ailments (Addison's disease, ulcers, prostatitis, severe back pain) and pharmaceuticals (steroids, Nembutal, amphetamines, penicillin, cortisone) shed new light on how much pain the president was in, as well as how little the nation knew of his mind-boggling array of maladies.

But what drew the biggest headlines once the book was released several weeks ago, of course, was sex. Interest in the infamous Kennedy appetite, fairly considered by Dallek but not an overwhelming theme in his book, gained new momentum through revelations of the president's affair with a 19-year-old intern. The inevitable comparisons with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky grabbed headlines.

JFK, in essence, has become a one-man Civil War. Like that great conflict, the era of Camelot long ago evolved into a cottage industry of books and movies, as well as ample conspiracy theories. And, as with the war, the Kennedy presidency is a topic stocked with enough enigmatic qualities to satisfy the longings and beliefs of just about anyone.

Do you believe those with wealth and privilege owe a debt to those less fortunate, payable only through public service? JFK's your man. Do you think the Mafia runs the country and rigs elections? He fits that bill, as well. Should a politician's sexual proclivities be part of the electorate's consideration? Either way, Kennedy provides plenty of grist -- and tryst.

Dallek delivers an evenhanded, painstakingly researched account of Kennedy's life. In the end, he reaches the conclusion that JFK never allowed constant pain to hinder his presidential duties. The conclusion is debatable, but Dallek's research and revelations prove riveting nonetheless.

For example, between 1955 and 1957, when Kennedy was flirting with a vice presidential candidacy and building toward his 1960 presidential run, he was secretly hospitalized nine times for a total of 44 days. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, JFK and his aides constantly denied he had Addison's disease, a condition of the adrenal glands considered life-threatening.

The ailments spurred Kennedy, in many ways. Beginning with a case of scarlet fever at age three, he endured serious illness and pain the rest of his years. Dallek contrasts the public reputation -- youthful, robust, healthy, energetic -- with the private. Behind closed doors, JFK emerges as a man who can hardly make it up a flight of stairs, who can't pull up his socks and who endures bouts of diarrhea so extreme he must be hospitalized. His cholesterol once reached a frightening level of 410. By the time of his election, Catholic priests had given Kennedy last rites on three separate occasions. Perhaps most disturbing, as president, JFK often relied on shots of cortisone and amphetamines to relieve discomfort and boost his energy level before delivering major speeches or negotiating with world leaders.

The painkillers and amphetamines were administered by the infamous Max Jacobson, an emigre German doctor known as "Dr. Feelgood" by his celebrity clients, who relied on him for restorative prescriptions. Kennedy never worried over the side effects of his medications. "I don't care if it's horse piss," he said. "It works."

The inner workings of the Kennedy family offer a similarly grim, hard-charging mood. Dallek's portrait of domineering patriarch Joseph Kennedy and his aloof, distant wife, Rose, are balanced with nuance. The family's legendary competitiveness surfaces again and again.

Even during JFK's playboy days -- which never really ended -- he retained a sense of urgency. Part of his motivation stemmed from health problems. Even in adolescence, Kennedy knew his life span would be shortened by poor health. That realization, combined with a fierce rivalry with his brother Joe Jr., drove him.

When his brother died during a bombing mission in World War II, it shattered the family. JFK recognized his brother's death as an emotional scar beyond grief. Reflecting on a competition that would never again be consummated, he said, "I'm shadowboxing in a match the shadow is always going to win."

His heroic service on PT-109, which gave him a lifelong skepticism toward the military and its leadership, offers a snapshot of his confounding blend of bought-and-paid influence and courageous independence.

His father's connections put him in the Navy, but once he got a desk job, Kennedy demanded to be sent into battle; he was desperate to fight. Soon after he was stationed in the Pacific, Kennedy wrote home to his paramour, Inga Arvad: "A number of my illusions have been shattered."

A later letter, laced with contempt, told her of squiring high-ranking officials: "Have been ferrying quite a lot of generals around as the word has gotten around evidently since MacArthur's escape that the place to be seen for swift and sure advancement if you're a general is in a PT boat."

By the time Dallek takes us through the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the New Frontier, Civil Rights and Vietnam, it's hard to answer the question Kennedy himself so famously posed: Did he do for the country, or did the country do for him?

Forty years later, no clear answer emerges, which means Dallek's biography is a judicious one. In the end, the Kennedy question can never be answered, but it will be asked for many generations to come.

Rash of Awards

NFP book gets IPPY wid it Poet Ron Rash's first novel, One Foot in Eden, published by Novello Festival Press (NFP) of Charlotte, is racking up literary awards.

ForeWord magazine, a monthly that reports on independent press publishing ventures, named One Foot in Eden the book of the year in its literary fiction competition.

Independent Publisher magazine, which sponsors the "IPPY" award, named the book a finalist in the general fiction category of their awards competition. IPPYs honor works published by university and independent literary presses in the US.

"We are delighted for the recognition of this fine book," says NFP Executive Editor Frye Gaillard. "This adds to the long list of accomplishments of the Public Library." Novello Festival Press is a publishing project of the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County.

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