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Interview With David Brinkley

Aired May 12, 2003 - 20:41   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: A new book out tomorrow includes a claim that President Kennedy had sex with a White House intern.
Our Jonathan Karl has read the book, which contains other surprising revelations.


JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The revelations about Kennedy's alleged affair with an intern make up just a couple lines in historian Robert Dallek's 700-plus-page JFK biography. The information comes from a single source, an interview with a former Kennedy staffer who says she does not remember the intern's last name.

Although Dallek finds the reports of Kennedy's womanizing credible, he believes new information about Kennedy's health problems is more significant. John F. Kennedy's public image was one of youthful vigor. But, in truth, he battled serious medical problems his entire life. Twice before becoming president, he was so sick, a priest was brought in to give him last rites.

While researching his new book on JFK, Dallek uncovered previously sealed medical records that detailed the extent of Kennedy's medical troubles and the lengths he went to conceal them from the public.

(on camera): There are many stories about politicians who used political influence to get out of military conflict. But Dallek shows that Kennedy actually used his family's influence to get into the Navy just as America was on the verge of World War II.

(voice-over): In 1941, he flunked two military medical exams. His powerful father intervened, getting yet another exam. "Reading the report of his exam," Dallek writes, "one would think he never had a serious physical problem in his life. It was a complete whitewash that would never have been possible without his father's help."

Kennedy entered the Navy, earning hero status for saving his shipmates when his boat was sunk, PT-109, was sunk by the Japanese. Dallek says Kennedy's brushes with death, combined with the untimely deaths of his brother Joe and sister Kathleen, fueled the ambition that led him to become the youngest person elected president in American history.

Kennedy told a friend before he entered politics: "You've got to live every day like it's your last day on Earth. That's what I'm doing."

Jonathan Karl, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Well, no surprise, even in a book of more than 700 pages, it was the few lines about the intern that made JFK front-page news today, nearly 40 years after his death. There's "The Daily News," front page right there.

Doug Brinkley is a presidential historian and author most recently of "Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company and a Century of Progress." He joins us tonight from New Orleans.

Douglas, good to see you again.

How significant is this revelation about President Kennedy and the intern?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, it's not very significant at all.

We've known for a long time John F. Kennedy had a proclivity for women. He was known as a sexual athlete back then. And the reporters didn't talk about it. But in the last decades, every almost year, we find out about a new revelation. This is significant I think more for the Clinton presidency. That term intern is what is the hook here. The fact that there was a 19-year-old intern in the Kennedy White House who was hanging around with the president, while I think will always be connected to Bill Clinton's biography, he wasn't the first one to apparently have had extramarital affairs with an intern.

COOPER: The way the knowledge was handled, though, so completely different between back then with Kennedy and Clinton.

BRINKLEY: Well, of course, the media's changed so much. Back in the early '60s, the media was complicit in Kennedy's behavior, in the sense of covering up for him, not reporting it, believing that the president was allowed to have a private life. Watergate changed all that.

Since then, everybody wants to be a Woodward or a Bernstein. And one sure way to get your name on the front page of a newspaper or get a breaking story is finding a bit of dirt on a politician. And we saw the Clinton scandal where every reporter in the world was going after some aspect of his personal life. That didn't happen during the Kennedy years.

COOPER: Well, with that in mind, how is it that this information about President Kennedy and the intern has not surfaced until now?

BRINKLEY: Well, Bob Dallek is an extraordinarily first-rate historian. He's been given unprecedented access. His book, which I read in galley, is superb. And there's all sorts of new tidbits because of this. And he was able to get an oral history from a woman who worked in the White House who knew about this intern. He did his sleuth work, his follow-up work, and was able to bring this out in a credible fashion, yet also, to Bob Dallek's credit, didn't reveal the name of the young woman, because she now has a life. Obviously, she was young then. She's alive today. And he thought, it's best not to bring a media glare on her, which I think was a good decision.

But knowing the way that our society works, I'm sure somebody will dig up her name soon enough.

COOPER: The other information that came out of this book -- or at least some of the other information that's grabbed the headlines -- is the extent of his medical condition, a lot of new information there.

BRINKLEY: Absolutely, Anderson. It's revelations of new information. It's staggering.

You in your report there were mentioning how he tried to get into and did serve in World War II, trying to use his bad health and trying to get ways to cover up that. The key to Dallek's book is that Kennedy's whole life was one of kind of covering up things. And the health was the key part of it, that this Addison's disease and "Dr. Feelgoods" and popping pills and being dead any minute and last rites was very real for him.

And it was that he lived his life day by day. And, hence, there was a bit of recklessness. Whether it was driving the fastest sports car through the streets of Georgetown or putting his face in the wind when he was on a yacht, or having a 19-year-old intern, he seemed to want to do things his way because he thought every day may be his last day.

COOPER: And is it my understanding that the books make some linkage between his medical condition and his alleged affairs?

BRINKLEY: Yes. And I think there is -- one part of it is some of the medication that he was on and the need for, if you like, a tension release.

The other part of it is, I think, just this attitude of -- he inherited from his father Joe Kennedy a kind of view of women that they were there for you if you had the power and the money and the good looks, which John F. Kennedy did, and the fact that, with his illness, he kind of seemed to want to prove his manhood in ways. So, hence, he was with a revolving door of different women, none of them time-consuming. The Secret Service used to call John F. Kennedy the minuteman. These were quick dalliances and back to work he would go.

COOPER: Are there still more revelations to come, do you think?

BRINKLEY: I think there will constantly be. I know Bob Dallek, for example, is trying to open up the oral history of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, which has been shut. And there's still a lot of information at the Kennedy Library. And the amazing this is, along with Abraham Lincoln, I think John F. Kennedy is one of the presidents people don't get tired of. And so, constantly, we want to hear every little bit of him. He's become not just a president, but an icon. And people never tire of hearing about any aspect of his life.

COOPER: All right, Douglas Brinkley, thanks very much. It was interesting.

BRINKLEY: Thanks, Anderson.


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