The Current Crisis

Jack and the Black Cats

Why this sudden interest in John F. Kennedy's dreadful health problems, which biographers like Thomas Reeves and Richard Reeves documented years ago?

By 11.19.02

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Washington -- I am rather proud of having coined the term Black Cat New Story. I applied it to a journalistic sophism that I noticed some years ago. It is a tendentious news story that suddenly crosses the path of a public figure and supposedly hexes that notable's career forever. Usually the story has very little substance or very little that is new, but it supposedly reveals something gruesome about its target and gets the chattering classes chattering in ominous tones about his imminent demise. The Black Cat News Story appears frequently during a figure's rise to prominence, preferably at election time if the figure is a politician. Remember the ominous tales of candidate George W. Bush's hell-raising youth or the "October Surprise" stories that seemed to doom candidate Ronald Reagan until they were revealed as piffles?

With this week's reports of John F. Kennedy's dreadful health problems we have a new kind of Black Cat News Story. The Black Cat News Story that hexes a dead man's future reputation. Typical of the Black Cat News Story there is not much to it or, as in the case of the Kennedy health record, not much that is new or pertinent. According to the reports, "records show that Kennedy variously took codeine, Demerol and methadone for pain; Ritalin, a stimulant; meprobamate and librium for anxiety; barbiturates for sleep; thyroid hormone; and injections of blood derivative, gamma globulin, presumably to combat infections." That is how Reuters reported it.

Now what is new here? Very little, if you have kept up with the biographical revelations of such writers as Thomas C. Reeves, author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy and Richard Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power. Incidentally, for the conspiracy theorists, throttle that impulse. The authors are neither related nor members of a cult. Their shared name is just a coincidence. I know that is shocking, but coincidences happen, just like sun spots.

Not only is there not much new here, but about all the list of medications reveals is something everyone knows. Kennedy was a rich celebrity. A generation ago it was not at all unusual for rich celebrities to be walking test tubes. Before our current health-food craze America was living through the miracle-drug craze, and the doctors of the rich and famous were promiscuous in mediating their famous potions.

Contrary to common belief, about the only Americans that suffer worse medical treatment than the very poor are the very rich. They take their problems to the most famous doctors in the republic. Unfortunately the most famous doctors are usually famous for breakthrough experiments and revolutionary theories. Almost never do they have much daily contact with patients. They are rarely well-rounded practitioners of medicine. Not infrequently they prescribe the latest and least proven therapies. And one other thing: they often over-medicate.

JFK had serious health problems, some from his war injuries. A friend of mine who knew him told me he once while in hospital showed her a gash in his back that was deep and long. It was either from his war wounds or a later operation. It was painful to look at and doubtless more painful to bear. JFK had other serious medical problems, one of which was overmedication, and many of his later problems stemmed from that. A good middle-class doctor could have saved him much pain, but then he would have to settle for middle-class medication and that was not very fashionable for people of his set in his day.

Precisely what this Black Cat News Story is supposed to achieve seems vague. At once readers are supposed to feel powerful officials around the Kennedys lied to us. Moreover we are now supposed to clamor for the health records of candidates. I personally clamored for Bill Clinton's health records only to be told by fellow journalists that they had been released in their entirety. They never were. Finally we are supposed to appraise JFK with a mixture of awe and fear, awe at his fortitude, fear that he was in a delicate condition that might have lead to cataclysm.

As I say, there never really is much to these sensational stories. As for Kennedy I shall remain in awe of only one thing. How did he manage to be so good looking when he felt like hell? Can someone lay hands on his cosmetic surgery records?

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.