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What Else We Hardly Knew

November 19, 2002

A disturbing aspect of modern life in this democracy is how many of us now seem to lazily accept only information favorable to our causes and favored public figures (or unfavorable to opponents), dismissing the rest. A vital duty of citizenship is to examine all information. Thus, the stunning revelations of President Kennedy's serious lifelong physical infirmities, hospitalizations, obfuscations and the combined potency of his numerous daily drugs prompt disturbing questions and encouraging observations.

According to historian Robert Dallek, who got unprecedented access to Kennedy's medical records and chronicles them in headache-inducing detail in December's Atlantic magazine, we didn't know that contrary to his carefully cultivated image of fitness and vitality (remember the family touch-football photos?), Kennedy was sickly from birth, was secretly hospitalized often and suffered from osteoporosis, Addison's disease, colitis and chronic diarrhea. He was in constant pain, had difficulty on stairs and in chairs and chronically took steroids, painkillers, antibiotics, antispasmodics, antihistamines, testosterone and sleeping pills and, briefly, an antipsychotic drug.

Presidential health obfuscation is not unprecedented; unbeknown to most Americans at the time, President Cleveland had a massive oral cancer removed and President Wilson was paralyzed by a 1919 stroke.

Because we didn't know of Kennedy's numerous infirmities and treatments, we couldn't admire his courage and stamina. Nor, by design, could we ponder the combined and accumulating effect of so many drugs, some administered without White House medical approval. The Kennedys feared, with reason, that had voters in 1960 known of his afflictions, Kennedy would lose what became one of U.S. history's closest presidential elections. That decision, however, should be up to the voters, not a close-knit clan of relatives and ambitious aides.

No one, least of all public figures, likes personal problems disclosed. But those seeking high elective office forfeit many things, including much privacy. American voters had and have a right to the fullest medical information on would-be leaders. And the media must report it fully and fairly.

To the extent these disturbing revelations feed a modern predilection to suspect that everyone in public life hides evil secrets, they're unfortunate. But there are encouraging signs too: First, the information that some try so hard to hide eventually gets out. Second, Americans in the last 40 years have displayed evolving sophistication in judging what matters in candidates.

Once, certain religions and racial backgrounds were disqualifiers for elective office, as was being female, divorced, gay or disabled. Once, a previous cancer or a heart condition precluded public service. Now, we have made great advances both in health care and thinking. Serious medical conditions still may preclude service, in the collective judgment of thoughtful citizens. The impressive development now is that they need not.

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