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JFK: A 'Life' revealed

Robert Dallek charts a president's 'Unfinished Life'

By Todd Leopold

book cover
Kennedy's rocking chair, seen on the cover of Dallek's book, wasn't just a prop; he needed it for his bad back. Dallek also uncovered information about Kennedy's medical history.

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(CNN) -- Is there anything left to say about John F. Kennedy?

The 35th president has been all but exhumed since he was assassinated in 1963 at age 46. His administration has been placed on a pedestal; his life has been splashed in the gutter.

He has been glorified and vilified, sanctified and mummified, until we know more about the grassy knoll than we do about our own back yards.

Indeed, by now, there must be some definitive summation of his life.

But Robert Dallek knows differently.

"There is no definitive biography," the presidential historian, best known for his two-volume work on Lyndon Johnson, says in an interview at CNN Center to talk about his new work, "John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life" (Little, Brown). "There's always new material coming out."

Dallek tapped into some of that material -- most notably JFK's medical records -- in putting together his book.

He found the records startling: JFK, it turns out, had long struggled with his health and was on several medications to treat his Addison's disease, back pain, assorted aches, and various side effects caused by his diet of pills. And yet the image presented to the public was one of youth and "vigah," as the president himself would say.

"I came away realizing that Kennedy was much sicker than we had understood," the author says. "The problems were hidden from the public. If the public had known, he never would have been elected."

Media circuses

The revelations caused a media frenzy when Dallek first revealed his findings late last year. But the 69-year-old historian himself has little but praise for Kennedy for handling his afflictions.

Even during the strain of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dallek says, Kennedy was in control: "He was lucid, he was cogent, he was what we'd want our president to be," he says.

Kennedy and advisers
Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara consult during the Cuban Missile Crisis, considered one of JFK's finest hours.

Moreover, some of the most notable leaders in history have dealt with severe problems, he says. Some were physical, such as Kennedy's back (which sometimes required braces) and Addison's, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's polio-weakened legs.

Other great leaders have had to cope with mental problems; both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill suffered from severe bouts of depression, Dallek notes.

"Would it have been well for the world to have lost these leaders' abilities?" he asks.

Not that presidents should hide their ailments, he says, "but I hope the public is more sophisticated these days. ... Human frailty goes with being human."

In the book, Dallek handles another of Kennedy's frailties, his compulsive womanizing, unflinchingly.

Yet he was somewhat surprised when a revelation that rates all of one short sentence in the 838-page work -- the fact JFK had an affair with a White House intern -- dominated the news media for a week.

"[The attention] speaks volumes about the change of political and media culture," he says. "I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, but I knew [the frenzy] would happen."

Indeed, one day Dallek opened up a New York tabloid and was faced with a bizarre juxtaposition. "There was a picture of Monica Lewinsky -- and a picture of me."

The judgment of history

Historian Robert Dallek

Dallek decided to tackle the Kennedy biography because he believed the time was right for a comprehensive, single-volume work. His LBJ biography opened doors to Kennedy intimates and records, and new information was being released all the time.

The story still has more chapters to come, he says. It's not just the ongoing arguments about what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam, or the controversy that still surrounds his assassination.

Jackie Kennedy sat for an oral history that sits, unrevealed, in the Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Files from JFK's brother Robert also are locked up, Dallek says.

Judgments about presidents continually change. The now well-regarded Harry Truman was believed a failure when he left office, and Dwight Eisenhower is now seen as a shrewd leader instead of a sleepy father figure.

New information may yet affect history's overall judgment of JFK. His charm, wit and matinee-idol looks, along with his shocking death so young, have cemented him in myth -- "He's frozen at 46," says Dallek -- but he has also been seen as callow, reckless, a poor legislator.

Dallek says history will treat Kennedy well. The programs Congress put through under Johnson -- civil rights legislation, Medicare, the war on poverty -- were Kennedy initiatives, and if JFK had won in 1964, "he would have passed those laws [himself]," says Dallek.

And Vietnam? It's impossible to know, but in "An Unfinished Life" Kennedy, always savvy about foreign policy, is shown to be much more skeptical about what his generals and Cabinet officers said than LBJ was. Dallek posits that JFK would have quietly pulled out of the conflict.

Dallek is proud of how "An Unfinished Life" turned out, and he is glad he's been able to show John F. Kennedy the human being, not Kennedy the icon.

"I make him real [in the book]," he says. "And that's always what you want to do."

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