From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast

Ep. 16B - The Kennedys as Boomer Icons, Part II: Origins

December 30, 2021 Logan Rogers Season 2
Ep. 16B - The Kennedys as Boomer Icons, Part II: Origins
From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast
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From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast
Ep. 16B - The Kennedys as Boomer Icons, Part II: Origins
Dec 30, 2021 Season 2
Logan Rogers

This episode examines the origins of John F. Kennedy's political career, considering his youthful health problems & his sibling rivalry with his older brother Joe Junior. JFK was a charming, irreverent, & popular young man, although he struggled with chronic pain & health difficulties that prevented him from matching the accomplishments of his older brother, who was a standout student & athlete. Both brothers graduated from Harvard & then enlisted in the US military at the outbreak of World War II. JFK started out in a comfy posting with naval intelligence in Washington DC, until his love affair with a married foreign journalist (who was suspected of being a Nazi spy) led to his transfer into combat duty. Jack then commanded a boat in the South Pacific, & he heroically helped rescue crew members when his ship capsized. Joe Junior also had dangerous wartime adventures, which unfortunately led to his death in a plane crash over the English Channel. At war's end, family pressure led Jack to run for Congress; he overcame debilitating back pain to become a successful politician. However, Congressional colleagues dismissed JFK as an idle playboy; few would have guessed he was just a dozen years away from being elected President of the United States.

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Show Notes Transcript

This episode examines the origins of John F. Kennedy's political career, considering his youthful health problems & his sibling rivalry with his older brother Joe Junior. JFK was a charming, irreverent, & popular young man, although he struggled with chronic pain & health difficulties that prevented him from matching the accomplishments of his older brother, who was a standout student & athlete. Both brothers graduated from Harvard & then enlisted in the US military at the outbreak of World War II. JFK started out in a comfy posting with naval intelligence in Washington DC, until his love affair with a married foreign journalist (who was suspected of being a Nazi spy) led to his transfer into combat duty. Jack then commanded a boat in the South Pacific, & he heroically helped rescue crew members when his ship capsized. Joe Junior also had dangerous wartime adventures, which unfortunately led to his death in a plane crash over the English Channel. At war's end, family pressure led Jack to run for Congress; he overcame debilitating back pain to become a successful politician. However, Congressional colleagues dismissed JFK as an idle playboy; few would have guessed he was just a dozen years away from being elected President of the United States.

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“From Boomers to Millennials” is a podcast that provides a fresh look at each year of post-World War II American history, plus in-depth supplemental content about a variety of modern US history topics. Welcome to Episode 16B, entitled “The Kennedys as Boomer Icons, Part II: Origins.” Today’s episode will examine the origins of John F. Kennedy’s political career. We will also discuss his youthful health problems & his rivalry with his elder brother Joe Junior. Now, I want to address any longtime listeners who may be concerned that our show is permanently morphing into a podcast about the Kennedys. That’s not the case. In our next episode, which will be released in January 2022, we will return to our year-by-year historical narrative, picking up the story in 1961. Our Kennedys supplemental series will be continued occasionally in between regular episodes about the specific yearly events of the 1960s. Of course, we are not immune to public pressure – if enough people write to us at and let us know that you dislike the Kennedys shows, we may just end the series early. However, the first episode of “The Kennedys as Boomer Icons” got more downloads than usual for us, so we will continue following the thread of this saga so long as our listeners appear to still be interested.


But before we pick up that story, we will provide a podcast update. First of all, a quick ad-lib that’s not in the script. I moved a few months ago, & ever since then I’ve had a hard time finding a place where the recording quality is up to the level that I’m satisfied with. We’ve even had somebody write in who was otherwise very complimentary to the podcast, but that listener complained about the issues with variations in volume. So, today I’m recording at an alternate, secret location that hopefully will have higher-quality audio. Please write to us & let us know if this episode is an improvement over other recent episodes in terms of sound consistency & quality. Now, for the more fun part of the podcast update. Our current Top 10 countries with the most downloads are as follows: 10) Norway; 9) Indonesia; 8) The Netherlands; 7) Germany; 6) Mexico; 5) Ireland; 4) Australia; 3) Canada; 2) the UK; & 1) the good ol’ US of A. Thanks to all our Mexican & Dutch listeners who helped their countries break into the Top 10. We appreciate our fans all across the world!


Now we shall return to the rise of the Kennedy political dynasty. In our previous episode (Part I a/k/a Episode 16A), we examined the life of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who rose from his middle-class Massachusetts origins to ruthlessly amass one of the great fortunes of the early 20th Century. Joe Kennedy’s interests the turned to public office, but his political career came to an ignominious end due to his support for appeasing the Nazis in the years immediately prior to the Second World War. The Kennedy family’s political ambitions would now have to be achieved by his sons, and Joe Senior would devote considerable financial resources to promoting their candidacies for federal office. Our focus for this episode turns to his oldest two boys, Joe Junior & John, whose lives both involved major accomplishments & tragedies.


Joseph Kennedy Junior was the eldest son & the heir apparent of the Kennedy fortune. He took on a leadership role over the large family of 9 children very early on, according to journalist Cari Beauchamp. When neither parent was home, (quote) “it was Joe Junior who took the place of honor, learning to carve the meat at an early age & taking easily to the task of calling [out] the other children on their dirty hands & unacceptable manners” (close quote). Compared to his sickly & sometimes slovenly younger brother John Fitzgerald, Joe was more serious-minded & conscientious. Beauchamp recounts that from his early grade-school years (quote) “Joe Junior was strong & healthy, an intensely competitive athlete, and a good & disciplined student” (close quote).


The future president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was known to friends & family as “Jack,” grew up struggling with the feeling that he wasn’t living up to the examples set by his father & elder brother. Biographer Robert Dallek argues that (quote) “Jack wrestled with the strains of uncommonly high parental expectations, pressures to live up to ‘Kennedy standards,’ to stand out, not just from the crowd, but from the best of the best” (close quote). As a teenager, he struggled to get out of the shadow of his competitive & athletic older brother. According to Dallek, (quote) “Joe Junior, with a robust constitution, [and] a temperament much like his father’s . . . was [Joseph Kennedy Senior’s] favorite [son].” Dallek quotes a girl who dated Jack Kennedy when he was teenager as saying that (quote) “He talked about [his older brother] all the time. ‘Joe plays football better, Joe dances better, Joe is getting better grades.’ Joe just kind of overshadowed him in everything” (close quote).


Jack attended a fancy preparatory high school called Choate, which was considered a stepping stone to getting into Harvard & other top-tier Ivy League universities. Dallek notes that (quote) in “the difficult transition from teenager to young adult . . . Not the least of his difficulties was a series of medical problems that baffled his doctors & tested his patience” (close quote). JFK had suffered with scarlet fever as a young child, which may have rendered him more physically susceptible to various ailments. In his high school years, he suffered constant fatigue, he was underweight, he had recurring flu-like symptoms, & he suffered regular pain in his stomach & knees. During the early 1930s, doctors diagnosed him with “spastic colitis.” Dallek speculates that (quote) “Jack may have been [given] steroids . . . successfully treating his colitis, but at the possible price of stomach, back, & adrenal problems” (close quote). Indeed, he notes that JFK did indeed develop serious back problems once he reached his early 20s. Dallek discusses the possibility that Jack actually had Celiac Disease, the gluten-sensitive condition that has caused gluten-free menu items to become popular among some consumers during the 21st Century. However, Dallek notes that the correct diagnosis for JFK appears to have been Addison’s Disease, which is (quote) “a disease of the adrenal glands characterized by a deficiency of the hormones needed to regulate blood sugar, sodium, potassium, and the response to stress” (close quote). Medical professionals would not properly identify Jack as having this relatively rare disorder until he was in his late 20s.


JFK developed a reputation for being disorganized & untidy at his boarding school. His older brother Joe expressed concern about his lack of work ethic, & Jack had some disciplinary problems. According to Dallek, (quote) “he tested the rules so boldly at Choate [prep school] because he believed he could get away with it. As the son of a wealthy & prominent family . . . Jack felt some invulnerability to [the school’s] strictures” (close quote). Yet JFK also had a charm that helped him get away with being a mischievous student. His high school teachers & classmates describe him as relatively popular. Periodic absences due to his health problems contributed to some academic struggles; JFK graduated only in the middle of his class, but his father was still able to get him into Harvard University during this pre-WWII era where Ivy League admissions were still more about class & connections than standardized test scores.


Jack’s social success continued during his years as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he prioritized socializing & partying above rigorous academic study. Dallek writes that his classmates (quote) “remember a charming, irreverent young man with a fine sense of humor & a passion for sports and the good life” (close quote). Dallek concludes JFK was (quote) “one of the many students at Harvard more interested in earning the social standing that attendance & graduation provided than in the book learning needed to advance a career” (close quote). Networking was seen as at least as important as academic achievement by the privileged students at Ivy League colleges in the first half of the 20th Century, so Jack focused more upon extracurricular activities more than upon the curriculum. For example, during his second year at Harvard, he participated in (quote) “junior varsity football, varsity swimming, Yacht Clubs, & service on the business board of the Harvard Crimson [newspaper]” (close quote). Despite his health issues, JFK was known to be a tenacious athletic competitor. Yet he was overshadowed by Joe Junior’s reputation as a Big Man On Campus; unlike Jack, Joe was big & strong enough to make it onto Harvard’s varsity football team.


Joe Jr. was more studious & politically focused than JFK at Harvard. He was elected to student government & emerged on campus as an outspoken anti-interventionist regarding the emerging international conflicts of the late 1930s. Meanwhile, Dallek writes that JFK (quote) “showed no overt interest in the campus activism provoked by the Depression, FDR’s New Deal, & the challenges to democracy from fascism, Nazism, & communism” (close quote). Jack was not very ideological, but he once scolded a friend for spouting fashionable left-wing views by writing to him in a letter (quote) “you are getting a certain carefree communistic attitude & a share-the-wealth attitude that is rather worrying to we who are wealthy” (close quote).


When their father Joseph Kennedy Senior espoused isolationist sentiments while US Ambassador to the UK during the lead-up to World War II, the Kennedy boys tended to echo his views. JFK biographer Robert Dallek notes that (quote) “Although his father’s public image had taken a downturn in the fall of 1938, when he publicly expressed favor for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany at Munich, Jack felt no discomfort with his father’s political pronouncements” (close quote). He observes that John F. Kennedy thought his father’s remarks were viewed as reasonable by everyone except (quote) “the Jews” & “bitterly anti-fascist” elements. JFK’s opinion of the danger posed by Nazi Germany would change in the years to follow, & he eventually developed greater intellectual independence, distancing himself from his father’s views. It remains unknown whether Joe Junior would be capable of a similar evolution. According to journalist Cari Beauchamp, when Joe Junior visited Munich back in 1934, he was impressed with the Third Reich, writing to his father that (quote) “Hitler is building a spirit in his men that would be envied in any country . . . Hitler has things well under control. The only danger would be if . . . one of his crazy ministers came into power” (close quote). Yikes, those comments did not age well. Perhaps even more disturbing, he praised the Nazis’ eugenics policies of sterilizing the disabled as a positive development that would (quote) “do away with many of the disgusting specimens of men” (close quote).


Despite his defense of his father’s statements, Jack Kennedy had a different impression when three years later in 1937 he visited Germany with a close friend. The friend recounted that he & JFK were disturbed by the cult of personality around Adolf Hitler & said that (quote) “We just had awful experiences there. [The Germans] were extremely arrogant . . . [they had] the feeling that they were superior to us & wanting to show it” (close quote). JFK toured all around Europe prior to his final year of college, & biographer Robert Dallek indicates that these travels created new intellectual curiosities about global affairs for Jack that caused him to actually take his studies more seriously. Upon his return, he worked very hard upon (quote) a “senior honor’s thesis on the origins of Britain’s appeasement policy” (close quote). The essay took a judicious approach that avoided being overly critical of the policies of Neville Chamberlain that his father had supported, but it also recognized the seriousness of the current Nazi threat to British imperial power. Dallek argues that (quote) “What seems most important now about [John] Kennedy’s thesis is the extent to which he emphasizes the need for unsentimental realism about world affairs” (close quote). JFK received high marks for the thesis, & his father was impressed. Joe used his wealth & connections to get Jack’s collegiate thesis published as a book entitled Why England Slept, against the advice of the young man’s professors who said it was a good work by undergraduate standards but was not worthy of publication. Perhaps surprisingly, the book by the callow college kid actually sold pretty well and got decent reviews. Joe Senior, who always had his finger on the pulse of market forces, probably realized that the public was very interested in the origins of the coming war, & he could actually make money off the publication in addition to raising his son’s national profile.


Upon graduation from college, Jack considered again following in the footsteps of his older brother Joe, who was attending Harvard Law, but decided against it, in part because war was imminent. Robert Dallek notes that (quote) “Thoughts of attending law school did not excite him. A stint in the military seemed like a challenging alternative” (close quote). Joe Junior soon put his legal studies on hold in favor of military service as well; he went on to become a US Navy pilot. Given JFK’s history of health problems, a desk job initially seemed a more likely destination for him than active combat duty. At the beginning of the war, he accepted a naval intelligence post in Washington DC. He might have remained in that role had he not encountered a striking blonde Danish journalist named Inga Arvad.


Jack Kennedy began an affair with Inga, who was a married woman, during his time in Washington DC. Now as we have mentioned, JFK had always been socially popular during his youth; that included being successful at attracting women throughout his college years. The fact that he was handsome, cultured, confident, witty, & wealthy certainly didn’t hurt his romantic prospects. According to Dallek, Jack often boasted about sexual conquests in letters to his male friends; following in the footsteps of his womanizing father, he often seemed to view women merely as fleeting objects of pleasure. He lacked interest in serious relationships until he had a lengthy fling with Inga Arvad. Dallek writes that (quote) “In spite of his intentions to keep the romance from becoming serious, Jack found himself smitten by Inga, & she reciprocated the affection” (close quote). It appeared that perhaps JFK had met a woman who could get him to settle down. However, members of the Kennedy family did not approve of Jack & Inga becoming a public couple. The fact that Inga happened to still be married at the time was definitely a problem; plus, she was a few years older than Jack & was not a Catholic, which also concerned the family. But there was another substantial problem that they did not yet know about: Inga was suspected by the FBI of being a spy for the Nazis.


Early in her journalistic career, during the mid-1930s, Inga had been sent from her native Denmark to a post in Germany, where she had gotten an interview with the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Upon meeting the blonde-haired & blue-eyed Inga Arvad, Hitler regarded her as a prime example of his racist ideal of Northern European so-called “Aryan” beauty. Hitler invited Inga to sit as a showcase in his reserved box at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Although I found no evidence that Arvad actually subscribed to fascist ideological views, she did make the very questionable move of accepting the invitation from Hitler & she was publicly photographed sitting near him at the Olympics. Because this evidence of hobnobbing with Nazis was in Inga’s background, the FBI had been tracking her as a potential German spy, & her sudden romance with the son of the former US Ambassador to the UK had done nothing to allay the Bureau’s suspicions. When the US military was informed of FBI concerns about this relationship, the Navy responded by transferring John F. Kennedy from Washington to South Carolina, far away from Arvad (who was working at a DC newspaper). She nevertheless occasionally flew south to visit him there for a little while, until Jack officially broke off the relationship under pressure from his father. Inga Arvad was never proven to be a spy. She remained in the USA, eventually divorcing her husband. Inga then married an American western movie actor & lived with him in the border town of Nogales, Arizona until her death in 1973.


Newly single & stuck on a South Carolina naval base during 1942, a bored Jack Kennedy applied for “sea duty.” He became attached to the idea of commanding a Patrol Torpedo (or PT) boat; Dallek notes that (quote) “the papers were full of stories about the heroic work of these small craft. The glamour of the PTs & . . . the chance to have his own command & escape the tedium of office work & navy bureaucracy made” this option “compelling” (close quote).  As a typical preppy kid from New England, JFK had grown up along the water & had considerable experience sailing, although heavy waves could wreak havoc upon his bad back. In fact, when he requested transfer to a PT boat, he was unable to pass the physical exam to get accepted for naval combat duty. Author Robert Caro reports that he finally got past this obstacle when his father arranged (quote) “for a special, in effect fixed-in-advance examination by a Navy Board that . . . cleared him” (close quote).


Given the Kennedy family’s emphasis upon masculine bravado, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jack Kennedy eventually felt compelled to eschew a desk job & seek out a military posting where he might see action. Thanks to his family’s ability to pull strings (once again), the Navy appointed JFK as commander of a PT boat with a crew of 13 men in the South Pacific. Serving on these bumpy vessels aggravated his back problems, but he did his best to hide the pain. Jack’s vessel, the PT-109, was part of a squadron sent to intercept a Japanese convoy in August 1943. Biographer Robert Caro notes that, amid the fog of wartime confusion on one fateful night, (quote) “a Japanese destroyer, looming suddenly out of the dark, smashed into [the] PT-109, slicing it in half” (close quote). A couple of crew members were killed, & most of the others were scattered throughout the water. It was up to the uninjured JFK to rescue many members of his crew, bringing badly injured men over to a floating chunk of wreckage that they could hang onto. His experience on the Harvard swim team paid off, as he then led his men on a lengthy swim toward a chain of islands off in the distance. Kennedy sometimes carried an injured crewmate on his back during the swim. The first island the wreck survivors arrived at was deserted; according to Caro, (quote) “Hungry & thirsty, his men started to despair, but Kennedy never stopped trying to get them rescued” (close quote). Jack swam to another island that turned out to be occupied by native Melanesian coastwatchers who were working for the Allies. JFK scraped a message onto the back of a coconut, & the coastwatchers were able to deliver this message via canoe to US forces stationed nearby in the Solomon Islands. A search party followed the instructions on the coconut to locate Jack & his crewmates. Six days after the initial collision, all of the survivors from PT-109 were rescued by the US Navy.


After heroically surviving the tragic loss of the first ship under his command, JFK was not dissuaded from remaining in the South Pacific combat zone. He wanted vengeance against the Japanese forces that had sunk the PT-109. Jack then served on a gunboat called the PT-59 for 6 weeks; Caro reports that it sunk “3 Japanese barges” during his time on its crew. But Kennedy then had to withdraw from the battle. His health problems, aggravated by the physical & mental strain of combat, had become too unbearable. He was sent to a military hospital in Arizona to receive treatment. By mid-1944, Jack was wearing a back brace & walking with a cane, and he also suffered from intense stomach pain. He then underwent a back surgery that unfortunately failed to solve his spinal problems.


JFK received another major blow during the summer of 1944, when he learned that his older brother Joe Junior had died when his US fighter plane exploded in a tragic accident. Joe had taken part in a Navy program called Operation Aphrodite that sought to make the Germans on the European front experience the terror that the Americans were experiencing from Japanese kamikaze attacks in the Pacific theater. In what journalist Brian Jones calls an experiment in rudimentary drone warfare, the US Navy’s plan was to fill up an airplane with explosives, then remotely pilot it to crash down upon targets, creating massive damage & destruction. The problem was, Jones notes (quote): “the technology did not exist for these remotely-piloted aircraft to take off,” so someone would have to pilot them. The US government, unlike the Japanese military, was not prepared at this time to force pilots into suicide missions. According to Jones, the plan was to have (quote) “a crew [pilot the aircraft through] take-off . . . get it to a safe altitude, & then parachute from the vessel” (close quote). It could be remotely guided to crash down onto the target from there. Jones writes (quote) “Operation Aphrodite was a combat-tested program, meaning they tested the development of this new weapon by simply trying to make it happen in actual combat scenarios. That’s how, on August 12, 1944, 29-year-old Navy Aviator Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. found himself aboard a B-24 Liberator [aircraft] laden with 20,000 pounds of explosives” (close quote). Unfortunately for Joe Junior, the plane unexpectedly exploded in midair over the English Channel before the crew was able to parachute out. Everyone on board was killed instantly. If Operation Aphrodite struck you as a bit of a cockamamie scheme, you’re probably on to something. Jones reports that the program (quote) “was a huge failure. It killed more American service members than Nazis” (close quote).


This news of Joe’s death was painful for JFK, who had always looked up to his beloved older brother, despite their competitive sibling rivalry. He also had to face the guilt of suspecting that his brother may have been attempting to outdo his own wartime exploits. Joe Senior had made sure that Jack’s heroism after the wreck of the PT-109 had been written up in national magazines (by the way, there would even be a Hollywood movie released about the PT-109 in 1963 while JFK was president). Journalist Cari Beauchamp observes that to the hyper-competitive Joe Junior, (quote) “For Jack to come in ahead [of him] on any level was unthinkable, yet here he was, [already] a best-selling author & a decorated war hero” during the early 1940s (close quote). She notes that Joe then sought his own noteworthy military accomplishments, by volunteering for the risky mission with Operation Aphrodite. Joe got the battlefield glory he was seeking in the mission, but sadly for the Kennedy family, this came in the form of the prestigious Navy Cross being posthumously awarded to him after his death. The eldest brother’s demise also meant that the weight of his stern father’s expectations now fell upon Jack’s shoulders. Joe Junior had planned to run for US Congress as soon as the war was over. Now, the family encouraged their surviving war hero son JFK to run instead. However, unlike his late big brother, who was a broad-chested, back-slapping extrovert, Jack did not have a natural temperament for politics. Although he was popular & socially successful in college, JFK had a tendency to become rather shy around large groups of strangers. His family had previously thought him better-suited to become a writer than a politician, based upon his personality. But now, a career in politics was expected of him, and he saw it as his duty to continue the family legacy of public service.


Back in the USA after the end of World War II, JFK ran for the US House of Representatives in his home state of Massachusetts. He did so during 1946, a year when Republicans had nationwide momentum (see Episode 1), but he was running within a solidly Democratic district, so the only real challenge would be winning his own party’s nomination. Unsurprisingly, the immense wealth of Joseph Kennedy Senior (quote) “played a huge role in the campaign, buying unprecedented amounts of radio, newspaper, & billboard advertising” (close quote), according to Robert Caro. Nevertheless, Jack still had to campaign in person in order to establish his political credibility, which forced him to get outside of his comfort zone. Caro notes that (quote) “Although the 11th [Congressional] District included Harvard, most of it was a tough working-class area” (close quote). JFK struggled to overcome his shyness when it came to public speaking, & his lack of familiarity in dealing with blue-collar audiences created some problems at first. But the Kennedy boys had been trained by their demanding parents to never back down from a challenge, so he pressed forward. He eventually learned to use his sense of humor to his political advantage, disarming skeptical working-class crowds by making self-deprecating jokes about his silver-spoon background. 


Campaigning also took a physical toll upon Jack. There was no television advertising or social media in 1946, so a Congressional candidate had to literally press the flesh to be successful; JFK found himself running around town shaking hands & pitching his qualifications to anyone old enough to be a registered voter. Like another legendary 20th Century Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jack learned to hide his constant physical pain with an outgoing, cheerful, & jocular facade. On the last day of the campaign prior to the Democratic primary election, he took part in a 5-mile parade walk. It was a hot & humid day in June, & toward the end of the parade, John F. Kennedy collapsed due to a combination of exhaustion & back pain. It was a good thing for the Kennedys that no one had camera phones to capture that moment & bring it to the attention of the media, because the family were determined to keep Jack’s health problems out of the newspapers. JFK recovered & the following day he was cheered up by learning that he had triumphed in the primary.


John F. Kennedy easily won the general election in November 1946, but his official entry into national politics had its share of critics. Many of Jack’s “haters” whispered that Joe Kennedy Senior had simply bought his son a seat in Congress. Jack entered the US Capitol still recovering from the trauma of his military service & his subsequent back surgeries; according to Caro, he looked gaunt, (quote) “barely 140 lbs. on a 6-foot frame.” He wore a suit that hung loosely on his body – one observer said he looked like (quote) “a little boy dressed up in his father’s clothes” (close quote). Caro recalls that in his early days as a Congressman, JFK’s (quote) “rate of absenteeism was one of the highest in the House” (close quote). Some absences were due to illness, but others were more self-indulgent; when he was feeling healthy, Jack prioritized socializing with buddies & dating numerous women above the tedious, laborious process of crafting & passing federal legislation. As always, he had his easygoing charm & was broadly well-liked, but there were many detractors among his Congressional colleagues who dismissed him as an idle playboy who lacked the interest & drive to ever be a serious politician.


Because of this lackluster early Congressional track record, very few observers would have guessed in the late 1940s that Representative John F. Kennedy was just a decade or so away from becoming President of the United States. In the next episode of this supplemental series, we will examine how he got from the halls of Congress to the White House. Before we conclude Part II, we want to mention one major boost that JFK received before the end of the Truman Administration; he was finally correctly diagnosed with Addison’s Disease in 1947, & according to Caro, (quote) “In 1949 . . . a new drug, cortisone, would prove to be a ‘miracle drug’ for Addison’s.” Jack began taking it every day, & before long (quote) “his weight became normal at last, & from that time on, the abdominal symptoms didn’t bother him as much” (close quote). This was not the end of JFK’s health problems, but using cortisone helped give him the healthy, vigorous appearance that helped him to win the presidency. It also improve his ability to function on a day-to-day basis, which put new wind into the sails of his political career. As one friend remarked, cortisone gave John F. Kennedy (quote) “a whole new lease on life.”


What are we to make of JFK’s health problems? They certainly help to humanize him beyond the picture-perfect “Camelot” image. Perhaps they also helped him to develop more humility than he might have otherwise had. It is often commented that FDR’s polio gave him more political empathy for the downtrodden elements of society; perhaps Jack’s medical struggles served a similar role. Nevertheless, one has a difficult time feeling too sorry for John F. Kennedy. On top of being born white, male, & American in the middle of the 20th Century, which alone gave him more power & freedom than the vast majority of humankind in that historical moment, Jack Kennedy also was very much a member of the 1%. He travelled the world, ate the finest foods, & had every opportunity at his fingertips – at least he did if he could push past his health limitations. Growing up in & out of hospitals, grappling at times with the fear that he would live a short life, probably did nothing to reduce the typical Kennedy tendency toward risk-taking, impulsiveness, & ambition in his nature. Unfortunately, although John F. Kennedy would (like his brother Joe) die relatively young, it would not be his chronic health problems that killed him. In our next full-length episode, we return to his ultimately doomed presidency, examining JFK’s turbulent first year in office – the year 1961.



The "From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Written and narrated by Logan Rogers. We list the source materials that we have used to research each episode of our show upon our Patreon page. Please subscribe to the pod & give us a favorable review on your favorite podcast platform. We want to wish our amazing listeners a very happy holidays, a happy upcoming New Year, & of course it wouldn’t feel to right conclude the last episode of the year 2021 without thanking you once again for listening.