While John F. Kennedy was in the prime years of his life during his administration, he was a physical wreck who might not have been able to continue on with his political career had he lived to run.
"He probably would not have lived through a second term," opined author Laurence Leamer, whose book "The Kennedy Men, 1901-1963" (William Morrow & Co., 912 pages, $35) is set for release next week. "He was a very, very sick man."
The JFK aura includes the famous images of the president and his extended family playing touch football, or the president donning Ray-ban sunglasses and sailing off Cape Cod with his glamorous first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier, known affectionately as Jackie. The president's only touch of mortality was the rocking chair he used to relieve the pain in his back caused by a football injury and exacerbated by an injury suffered in the sinking of his PT-109 during World War II.
Kennedy, however, had been struggling physically since he was a young boy, according to Leamer, whose research included a careful look at the president's long-term medical records.
"He had such an ill childhood that, as a kid, he was twice falsely diagnosed with leukemia," Leamer told United Press International. "He was in and out of hospitals and he had the (Catholic) last rites sacrament administered twice."
Kennedy was known to have suffered from Addison's disease, a rare endocrine disorder that leads to deterioration of the adrenal glands that recent medical research has linked to a variety of symptoms, particularly chronic pain and the inability to cope with stress. While Kennedy was on hormonal replacement, he still suffered since it is extremely difficult to fine-tune the dosages, especially in one who led a life filled with stress and activity, as did Kennedy.
At the time of Kennedy's autopsy, according to one of Leamer's sources, the adrenal glands, which normally sit on top of the kidneys, were nowhere to be found. They had completely atrophied -- an excruciatingly painful process that takes years.
While it is not a medical certainty that Kennedy was near death, he was at the very least physically debilitated and virtually exhausted from the tumultuous grind of his years in office in his diminished physical condition at the time of his death.
Leamer said that Kennedy's king-making father, Joseph, had to call in favors from political allies in order to get his son into the military and his military service left him even more broken.
While Kennedy could have probably sat out the war behind a stateside desk, or even as a 4-F civilian, there was a desire on the part of both Joseph and JFK himself to serve on the front lines. Some of it was due to Joseph Kennedy's vision of one of his son's occupying the White House, however true patriotism and machismo also played a major role.
"He was brought up to be brave and live this intrepid life," Leamer said. "And in order to be a man, you had to serve in World War II. He had to go fight; as sick as he was, he had a burning patriotism to serve in the military."
After the war, Kennedy plunged into the grueling world of politics and rocketed to the White House even as his health headed in the other direction.
Although reports that Kennedy dabbled in the use of amphetamines have been circulated in the past, Leamer was able to learn more details by being the first historian to get a look at the confidential files kept by the president's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln; upon Lincoln's death they were willed to collector Robert White who loaned them to Leamer and they are now in the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg.
"There was a multitude of health afflictions throughout his entire life that would have felled most men," said Leamer. "He somehow was able to overcome them and hide them from the public."
"He took a nap every afternoon in the White House and he took a half a dozen pills every morning," Leamer noted. "He took all kinds of medicines from a multitude of doctors in a very dangerous way; Kennedy shot himself up with drugs or had his friends do it -- he even had his needle kit onboard Air Force One."
The presidential drug cabinet included the powerful painkillers Novocain and procaine, and also a regimen of amphetamines supplied by Dr. Max Jacobson, nicknamed "Dr. Feel Good."
Among the documents in the Lincoln files, Leamer said, was a letter from Dr. Eugene Cohen to Kennedy warning him "that the entire future of the world was at stake and he had better stop taking these amphetamines."
Leamer said, "I was startled to read Doctor Cohen's letter to Kennedy; my point is that Kennedy knew the dangers of his drug habit, but he continued since he was so addicted."
The full scope of the dangers of long-term amphetamine use were not fully known in the 1960s, however JFK knew they were not good for him but continued his consults with Jacobson out of both a sense of duty and a burning addiction. In the days prior to his death, Kennedy's hands were shaking uncontrollably and he was heading for what Leamer saw as a "final breakdown" caused by a vicious combination of physical decline and the constant barrage of pharmaceuticals.
"Someone who read the galleys suggested that it was almost a relief when he died, that all the years of pain were over. We would do well to remember that the agony and the pain that Kennedy suffered was over and had ended as well," lamented Leamer.
But Kennedy's life was not one of a drug-addled wreck with a shaky finger on the nuclear button, according to Leamer. The president's willingness to soldier on through unforgiving pain and do whatever it took to remain on duty was a tribute to his sense of duty and love of country, and should also serve as an example to the nation as it faces the prospect of an extended and dangerous war against global terrorism.
"He was a patriot of word and deed and truly believed that Americans who benefited from this great country should give something back," Leamer said. "That should be the ultimate legacy -- not only of Jack Kennedy but also of all of the Kennedy men, especially at this time."
Some of the secret tapes of Kennedy in the White House can be heard on the Internet at kennedymen.com.