Richard Reeves

McCain, JFK, and the Health of Presidents

NEW YORK -- A lot of smart people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how and why President John F. Kennedy seemed to evolve from an indecisive fool in launching the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 into the cool and calm commander defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

"Growth" or "experience" are the words favored by the many champions of the 35th president. "Luck" is the favorite of his detractors.

"Medication" is the conclusion of David Owen, who is both the former foreign secretary of Great Britain and a neurologist who specialized in the chemistry of the brain in his years as a young physician.

Lord Owen has just published "In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years" in London. (An American edition will soon be coming to a bookstore or Web site near you.) It is a fascinating and important piece of work, and I assume that its publication during this presidential cycle is no coincidence.

Conventional punditry has it that John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, is getting a free ride in the media because of the intensity of the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but actually what we are seeing is the calm before the storms that will rage about McCain's age and health.

Owen, who had earlier written "The Hubris Syndrome" about the psychology of leaders, is back to brain chemistry this time, writing about the health (and its effects) of two dozen world leaders from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush, from Neville Chamberlain to Pol Pot.

The longest section, 50 pages, is on Kennedy, as it should be. Much of the book is about the secrecy and lying used to cloud men's minds about the actual state of the health of leaders. JFK, though, was in a class by himself. The man looked like a god, but as his brother, Robert, once told me, he had every disease known to man. That was hyperbole, of course, but the truth of the president's health was such that Bobby once told a friend, "If a mosquito bites my brother, the mosquito dies."

Some of this is not new. (I have written a good deal about it myself.) Dr. Owen, however, brings a different kind of perspective to the subject, as both politician and physician, than do journalists or historians. And it is a very rich subject, because most of what he writes about was hidden at the time. Speaking only of the Americans cited, Owen talks about the possibility that Theodore Roosevelt had what we would now call bipolar disorder, that Woodrow Wilson, hidden in a dark room inside the White House, was unable to read, write or speak for months, that Dwight Eisenhower's physicians simply lied about the medical problems of his old-age presidency.

In Kennedy's case, Owen makes a point, which might help the 71-year-old McCain a bit: Every significant world leader of Kennedy's time, from 70-year-old Charles de Gaulle in France to 84-year-old Konrad Adenauer in West Germany, were in far better health than the 44-year-old American president. In the end, Owen concludes (as I did in "President Kennedy: Profile of Power") that because of changes in physicians, pharmaceuticals, diet and exercise, Kennedy was in significantly better health on the day he was assassinated than on the day he took office.

At the time of the Bay of Pigs, JFK was regularly taking at least a dozen prescription medicines, including testosterone, corticosteroids and procaine, for his Addison's disease, colon problems, back pain, urinary infections and half a dozen other ailments -- all that plus shots of amphetamine concoctions. He also barely exercised in those days. Did that affect his energy and stamina and, more important, judgment? We will never know for sure, but Dr. Owen knows more about symptoms and side effects than most.

A year and a half later, when Soviet missiles aimed at the United States were discovered on Cuba, many of the president's medical excesses had been curbed, mostly due to the heroic work of Adm. George Burkley, a Navy physician, and Hans Kraus, an Austrian trainer, who restored Kennedy's body and presumably cleared his mind, substituting exercise and therapy for many drugs. Did that improve Kennedy's judgment? Almost certainly.

These are fascinating questions in a time now of fewer secrets. So, if you think John McCain will somehow get a free ride during the general election campaign, think again. By the time this is over, the questions and answers we hear about the Republican's health might be the equivalent of a semester of medical school.

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