In light of the current discussion about health and presidential candidates, I’m reminded about something I wrote related to this a while back. In my book, JACK & DICK: When Kennedy Met Nixon, I described a scene on a train in 1947, when Richard Nixon saw something that prompted a question about Kennedy’s health. In the author’s note at the end of the “based on a true story” novel (read: the story really happened by I have invented some of the dialogue), I gave a little background.
Late in the story, I mention something about a wound on Jack Kennedy’s thigh that prompted the question from Richard Nixon. Kennedy dismissed it and changed the subject. In truth, what I have Nixon noticing in my fictional account is based on fact. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s Disease, a chronic and serious endocrine disorder. He was treating it with DOCA (desoxycorticosterane), as I mention in the story. The aforementioned novel by Francine Mathews deals with this issue, as well.
None of this was publicly known during Jack’s lifetime. In fact, the Kennedy campaign in 1960 flatly denied that he had Addison’s Disease, a serious condition that would presumably have been of interest to voters. Lyndon Johnson had tried to make an issue of it in the build up to the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles that year, but the firm denials from the Kennedy camp won the day.
Johnson, though, knew he was right, and this might have been on his mind when he decided to join Kennedy on the ticket. Clare Booth Luce asked LBJ around that time why he had accepted the nomination for such an ineffectual office as Vice President, when he had been the powerful Senate Majority Leader. He replied: “Clare, I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin,’ and this is the only chance I got.”
In the emergency room at Parkland Hospital on November 22, 1963, Kennedy’s physician, Dr. George Burkley, asked the ER doctors to give Kennedy hydrocortisone because the President had Addison’s Disease. Likely one of the reasons the Secret Service and the Kennedy family resisted the performance of an autopsy in Dallas was because of past denials of what was finally acknowledged fact.
Nixon likely knew about Kennedy’s health challenges, as well, during the 1960 campaign. But he refrained from bringing the issue up, even though it might have been used to counter Jack’s charismatic image on the campaign trail and on television. That, and the fact that he didn’t challenge the election results in spite of strong evidence of fraud, are two often overlooked examples of Nixon’s capacity for restraint and mercy, his later actions notwithstanding.
[ABOUT THE BOOK: John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon met for the first time in early 1947, when they became part of the 80th Congress. A few months later—and thirteen years before their historic competition for the presidency—they traveled to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where they debated the merits of a new labor law.
But their minds were on bigger things.
As fate would have it, Jack and Dick shared a Pullman compartment on a train for the overnight trip back to Washington. They stayed awake all night talking about their lives, hopes, and visions for a better world. This book is based on a very true story.
Bestselling author David R. Stokes imagines how the conversation might have unfolded that long-ago night. Based on extensive research, and complete with a lengthy and unusual-for-a-novel bibliography, “JACK & DICK: When Kennedy Met Nixon” gives readers the chance to eavesdrop as two ambitious men have an animated conversation about history, world leaders, and the brewing geopolitical issues they would face one day as leaders of the free world.
It was the dawn of the Cold War, and these two former Naval officers were developing a vision for the world, one that would be “tempered by a hard and bitter peace.” And years later, the political torch would be passed to Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon, who represented “a new generation of Americans.”]