JFK, 'An Unfinished Life'

Author says Drugs, Affairs Did Not Damage Kennedy Presidency

Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Hear an extended interview with JFK biographer Robert Dallek.

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek hide caption

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Despite a bad back, Lt. John F. Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy and commanded PT-109 in the Solomon Islands during World War II. John F. Kennedy Library hide caption

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John F. Kennedy on crutches

John F. Kennedy, whose lifelong medical problems included osteoporosis of the lumbar spine, is seen on crutches, ca. 1952. John F. Kennedy Library hide caption

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A new book on President Kennedy has attracted attention because of the disclosure that he had sex with a White House intern. But Robert Dallek's book, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, has also sparked a debate among his fellow historians. Some are disputing the book's assertion that Kennedy's presidency was not damaged by his risky sexual behavior and bad health.

Dallek writes that the president took many prescription drugs, including amphetamines, sedatives, testosterone and codeine. But the author concludes the drugs were "no impediment" to being an effective president.

Dallek tells NPR's Juan Williams that after reviewing tapes and transcripts of Kennedy during the 13 days of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, "I found him to be cogent and lucid and as on top of the issue as any president could have been. Maybe he was able to compartmentalize, but my medical friends tell me that, in fact, taking the medicines allowed him to function at so high a level. He probably never could have been president if he didn't have... these medicines available to him."

Dallek says there were no conditions set on his use of JFK's medical records in the hopes that the author would paint the former president in a more positive light. "I did not show the [John F. Kennedy] Library, I did not show any member of the committee that gave me access or any member of the family what I was going to write," Dallek says.

Dallek says he compared the medical records to various crises of Kennedy's presidency, particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis. "This is the bottom line, the fundamental question: Did the man function effectively as president despite taking all these medicines and having so many ailments? And my answer is yes."

Dallek also obtained documents indicating Kennedy had an affair with a 19-year-old intern in the White House. He came across the material after discovering 17 blacked-out pages in an oral history by Barbara Gamarekian, who was an aide to Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger.

"I went to see her, talked to her and said, 'Barbara, may I read this? And she said, 'Well, it's 40 years later. OK, I'm going to let you have it." Dallek says Gamarekian refused to give him the name of the former intern to protect the woman from embarrassment. The New York Daily News subsequently learned the woman's identity and published an interview with her.

Many Americans consider Kennedy to be among the greatest presidents, but Dallek says most historians would dispute that. Kennedy's domestic record "fell well short of anything that would mark him out as great or even near great." He failed to win passage for civil rights legislation and other major legislative initiatives and he stumbled in foreign policy with the Bay of Pigs and an escalation of the Vietnam War, the author says.

But overshadowing those failures was Kennedy's assassination. "This remains important to the public," Dallek says. "I think there attaches to him his youthfulness, his hope, his promise and the country won't let that go. And I think it'll last for a long time yet."

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