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Author Robert Dallek, on John F. Kennedy

Robert Dallek has written a new biography of John F. Kennedy, An Unfinished Life. He looked into medical records to reveal new information about Kennedy's health problems, and he also discusses Kennedy's extramarital affairs and his life as a soldier. Dallek is a professor of history at Boston University. He previously wrote the biography Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times.


Other segments from the episode on May 14, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 14, 2003: Interview with Robert Dallek; Review of the film "Spellbound;" Review of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Robert Dallek discusses John F. Kennedy's political
career, health problems and extramarital affairs

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

New information about John F. Kennedy's political career, as well as his
health problems and extramarital affairs, is revealed in the new biography "An
Unfinished Life," by my guest Robert Dallek. Dallek is also the author of a
two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. In researching the JFK biography,
Dallek got access to newly uncovered medical records which show that Kennedy
misled the public about the extent of his health problems. Those problems
included colitis, Addison's disease, headaches, upper respiratory infections,
urinary tract problems and osteoporosis which caused his constant back pain.
The osteoporosis was probably a side effect of the steroids he was given as a
young man to treat his gastrointestinal problems.

Was Kennedy concerned when he was running for president that his health would
stand in the way of being an effective president, of being able to do the job?

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Author, "An Unfinished Life"): Well, Kennedy made a bet,
so to speak, that he could function effectively as president. Now there was a
cover-up of his health difficulties. Between 1955 and '57, for example, there
were nine hospitalizations for the various ailments I mentioned. The public
didn't know about this. They knew he had back surgery at the end of '54 and
had a plate removed from his back in early '55. But they did not know about
these nine hospitalizations, one of which lasted for 19 days; two of them
lasted for a week; several of them for two or three days. So they hid this
from the public. But he was confident that he could function effectively as
president. And, in fact, he did carry it off because it was one of the things
I looked very closely at in my research. I wanted to see were all these
medicines that he was taking having any negative impact on his ability to be
lucid, to function effectively in this office of such great power.

And I looked at the Bay of Pigs crisis, I looked at the Cuban missile crisis,
I looked at the Berlin crisis when Kennedy and Khrushchev were jousting over
the question of access to Berlin, and there were dangers of a war between the
US and the Soviet Union over that, and what I found that Kennedy was
consistently lucid. And we, of course, have the tapes that he recorded
particularly during the Cuban missile crisis and you see he's very much in
control, very much on top of the issues that he has to confront. So my
conclusion is that he really did not demonstrate any effect from taking these
medicines. In fact, if he didn't take them I don't think he could have
functioned as president at all.

GROSS: You say during the presidential campaign he was followed around by an
aide with a medical bag. What was in the bag?

Mr. DALLEK: Actually, my medical colleague, Dr. Jeffrey Kellman, and I had a
list of the various medications that was in the bag, was anti-spasmodics,
antibiotics, hydrocortisone, antihistamines. My medical colleague said that
if he took all these many medicines that were in that medical kit at one time
it would have killed them. Of course, they were there in case of an
emergency. At one point in the campaign the medic kit was lost, and Kennedy
called up Abe Ribicoff, the governor of Connecticut, and said, `Abe, this
medical kit I carry with me has been lost and essentially,' he said, `it'll be
a disaster if it falls into the wrong hands.' Well, it was found, but it
demonstrates how anxious they were to hide the health problems he had from the

GROSS: Now you found that Bobby Kennedy requested that the autopsy report be
destroyed after JFK was assassinated.

Mr. DALLEK: Yes.

GROSS: Tell us what you learned about that.

Mr. DALLEK: Well, this was all part of the cover-up of JFK's medical
difficulties. After JFK died, the FBI came to a man named Herpst, who was
Kennedy's urologist, and they asked him for the files. And Herpst said,
`Well, I can't just give you the files. I've got to speak to the family, to
Mrs. Kennedy, to Robert Kennedy,' which he did. And Robert Kennedy told him
to destroy the urological files. And Herpst's son called me and told me that
he remembers his father and grandfather, who were both urologists and in
practice together, going down in the basement of their house and throwing the
files into a furnace. At the same time, there was a White House physician by
the name of Young(ph) who told me that he believes Robert Kennedy instructed
the White House physician, Admiral Berkeley, to destroy his records. And then
when the autopsy occurred, Bobby Kennedy ordered that the autopsy notes, not
the autopsy report itself, obviously, but the autopsy notes be destroyed,
because obviously he didn't want the public to learn about his brother's many
medical difficulties.

GROSS: Robert Dallek is my guest, and he's the author of a new biography of
John F. Kennedy called "An Unfinished Life."

Well, you have new information on the affairs that Kennedy had while he was in
the White House. Before we even go there, why did you want to know? I mean,
what is the importance to you of knowing that?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, I did not do an awful lot with the philandering. There's
been so much written about it, and so I didn't spend an awful lot of time on
this. But I did in the course of my research come across the fact that JFK
was having an affair with a 19-, 20-year-old intern, a college student that
would come down to be an intern at the White House in the summer. And Kennedy
would take her away on trips with him. And, as my source said, she had
absolutely no skills--she could answer the telephone--but I guess to have sex
with him.

But what's most important about all this, it seems to me, is the fact that the
womanizing did not detract from his public performance as a president.

GROSS: What did the FBI know about his affairs? And what did they do with
that information?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, the FBI knew a great deal about his affairs. There are
lots of materials in the FBI documenting Kennedy's philandering and keeping J.
Edgar Hoover closely informed. Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy understood
that Hoover had this information. But they had a kind of unspoken alliance.
Kennedy kept Hoover on in his position as director of the FBI, and Hoover held
back from revealing any of this information.

In fact, Kennedy had an affair with a woman named Ellen Rometsch, about whom
there was suspicion she might be an East German spy. It's never been proven,
but you didn't need proof of this. If it became public, it certainly would
have been a shattering business for Kennedy's hold on the public's imagination
and on his political credibility. But Hoover sat on this information. They
sent Ellen Rometsch out of the country.

And so there was a kind of blackmail, one might say, that the FBI or Hoover in
particular could have used against Kennedy if Kennedy was going to try and
dump him. By the same token, Kennedy had a hold over Hoover because Hoover
served at his pleasure.

GROSS: So things stayed in neutral on that regard.

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah. So there was a kind of mutual agreement that the Kennedys
would not push out Hoover, which they might have liked to, and Hoover did not
reveal what he had in his files.

GROSS: What about Kennedy's political enemies? Did they try to leak
information or to expose Kennedy?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, I think on the health material, on the knowledge about his
health, they did try and reveal this material, but not on the sex, you see.
His political enemies were very cautious about doing this, because Kennedy, I
think, had pretty good information about what the sexual escapades were of
some of his political enemies, and so it could have been a kind of mutual
mudslinging they engaged in. But on the health during the 1960 campaign,
Lyndon Johnson's campaign tried to get the public alerted to the idea, or the
fact that Kennedy was ill, that he had Addison's disease. And the Kennedys
bristled at this revelation and angrily denied it. Of course, Johnson was

And one of the things I learned quite recently is that the night before John
Kennedy was nominated Lyndon Johnson called up a physician in Los Angeles,
where the Democratic Nominating Convention was being held, and said to
him--Dr. Labiner(ph) is the man's name, Gerald Labiner--he said, `Dr. Labiner,
I understand that you've been saying that John Kennedy has Addison's disease.'
And Labiner told me that he was nonplussed by Johnson's call and he would not
answer him directly. He had been gossiping about this, but he knew that this
was not appropriate for him to reveal it, and so he wouldn't tell Johnson
directly that Kennedy had Addison's disease.

So I think it was on the medical that they tried to get Kennedy politically,
but not on the sexual.

GROSS: Well, didn't you find that Nixon may have tried to steal Kennedy's
medical records?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, this is speculation on my part, I should say right off the
bat. There was a break-in and an attempted break-in of Kennedy's physician's
offices during the 1960 campaign. Kennedy himself thought it might have been
J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. The whole thing, though, to me, has the smell of
Watergate and the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in
Beverly Hills. And so I have speculated that this could have been the Nixon
campaign trying to get this information about Kennedy's poor health.

The office of Dr. Eugene Cohen, who was Kennedy's endocrinologist--the files
were put in a different drawer under a different name, and so the break-in did
not result in any information being obtained. And Dr. Janet Travell's
office--they tried to break the lock and didn't succeed, and never got into
her office. So Kennedy was protected from revelations about his health

GROSS: Robert Dallek, you report a lot on Kennedy's health problems. You
also report in your new book on Kennedy's infidelities. When you think about
the two together, you have to ask yourself, `If Kennedy had back problems,
colitis, urinary tract problems, headaches, other issues, too, how did he
manage to have so much sex?' I mean, honestly.

Mr. DALLEK: Yes. It's a good question. Terry, a lot of people ask me that.
And as far as I know, there was, first of all, the procaine shots in the back
so that one can imagine that he was free of pain during some sexual encounter
or sexual performance. The other is was that there apparently was a lot of
sexual activity in the White House swimming pool, and water gave him buoyancy
and would relieve the back problem, I guess, during the sex act. And then
also I've been told and read that he would take the prone position, which
would not put the kind of stress on his back, I guess, that he otherwise would
have experienced. So maybe those are the answers to that question. But, of
course, I'm not absolutely sure and I don't know that we'll ever learn

Of course, there is a 500-page oral history that Jacqueline Kennedy made, and
is locked up in the Kennedy Library and will not be opened until 50 years
after her death. I asked Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg for permission to read
this old history, but she replied politely that her mother's wish was to keep
it closed 50 years after her death, and she feels compelled to honor her
mother's wishes.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Dallek, author of a new biography of JFK called "An
Unfinished Life." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Robert Dallek. His new book, "An Unfinished Life," is a
biography of John F. Kennedy.

Let's talk about JFK's involvement in Vietnam. You say that he wanted the
French to end their colonial rule of Indochina and he also wanted to save
Indochina from communist control. Did you get any new understanding of how we
ended up getting more involved in Vietnam under Kennedy?

Mr. DALLEK: Yes. It's a very interesting story, Kennedy and Vietnam.
There's no question that in the 1950s he saw French colonialism in Vietnam as
destructive to Western interests, to French interests, to American interests,
to the whole anti-communist struggle, because French colonialism was fanning
the flames of expanding communism and was encouraging communist insurgencies;
not only in Vietnam, but in other colonial countries. Kennedy hoped the
French would get out of there. He hoped that the regime in Vietnam would then
be duly freely elected, that it would be pro-Western, that it would achieve a
kind of stability and would be firmly in the anti-communist camp.

Of course, as it turned out, the French wouldn't leave and were forced out by
the defeated Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and then the country was divided into two
parts--North Vietnam, controlled by Ho Chi Minh and the communists; and South
Vietnam under the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a Catholic ruling a Buddhist
country who was pro-Western and pro-American, and the Eisenhower
administration gave him both financial aid and military equipment.

And when Kennedy came to office in 1961, there was already some 650 American
military advisers in Vietnam helping the South Vietnamese to resist this
insurgency. Kennedy, after we defeated the Bay of Pigs and all the tensions
he had with Khrushchev over Berlin, was keenly concerned about the Third
World. This was a period in Cold War history when you had to fight for what
was described as hearts and minds, when the Soviet Union was appealing to
Third World peoples with the idea that America was a racist society, they had
segregation, apartheid in Southern United States, that the Soviet Union would
bring them much more rapid economic advance, progress, equality, a place in
the world. And Kennedy was deeply concerned to assure that America would win
out in this competition with the Third World countries.

He sets up something called the Green Berets, which is a counterinsurgency
force, because he's fearful that the way the communists are going to advance
in Vietnam and other Third World colonies is by subversion, by using guerrilla
tactics. He also feels the need--because the South Vietnamese government is
so ineffective in combating communism, Kennedy felt the need to send in, or
escalate, or increase, the number of military advisers from some 650 to
16,700. And so by the end of his presidency we had a more substantial
commitment in Vietnam than we had at the start of his term.

However, my conclusion in my book is that Kennedy never would have escalated
and become as deeply enmeshed in Vietnam as Lyndon Johnson did--different men;
different time--that there would have been a substantial difference between
the two of them.

GROSS: So what do you think the fundamental differences between Kennedy and
Johnson were about Vietnam?

Mr. DALLEK: Yes. This was the most important part, Terry. John Kennedy was
deeply skeptical of the American military. From the time he served in the
Navy, he saw the military chiefs there mainly as incompetent, acting in unwise
fashion. And then this was confirmed for him in the Bay of Pigs operation
when he was told by the CIA and the military that there'd be an uprising in
Cuba. And afterwards, he reproached himself for having allowed the invasion
to take place, saying, `How could I have been so stupid?'

He, at one point, wrote Bob McNamara a note after the Cuban missile crisis in
which there was still a discussion of invasion plans. And he said, `Bob, the
invasion plan is very thin. If we go in there, think of the nationalistic
fervor, think of the technical--capacity will be, think of the experience of
the British in the Boer War, the Russians in the Russo-Finnish war of 1940, of
our experience in North Korea. We could get bogged down.'

Now if he's worried about getting bogged down in Cuba, you can imagine what he
thought about Vietnam. He said repeatedly that it was not a good idea to send
large numbers of American ground forces into Vietnam; and, in fact, he
instructed Robert McNamara to begin planning an American exit from Vietnam.
His last conversation with his assistant secretary of State, Michael
Forrestal, November 20, 1963, about Vietnam, Kennedy said, `We have to review
this whole problem after I come back from Texas, and included in this we have
to consider how to get out of there.'

Kennedy did not want to escalate in Vietnam. The press--his dealings with the
press were very important here. Lyndon Johnson hated the press because it was
demoralizing the country and the war. Kennedy disliked what the press was
doing because it was reporting our ineffectiveness in resisting communist
aggression in South Vietnam, and Kennedy was worried that he was going to be
pushed in the direction of escalation. He was concerned to keep Vietnam off
the front pages of the newspapers. And my supposition is that if he had been
re-elected, which he certainly would have been in 1964, he never would have
escalated to the extent that Lyndon Johnson did.

Another comparison: Kennedy had credentials as a foreign policy leader,
having succeeded in the Cuban missile crisis, having put across the Nuclear
Test-Ban Treaty in the summer of 1963. He had the credentials to say to the
public, `We do not have to fight in Vietnam.' Lyndon Johnson did not have
those credentials. He was very apprehensive that if he didn't take a stand in
Vietnam the communists would see him as weak. He worried about the domino
theory, as it was called, about the toppling of the dominoes in Southeast
Asia. He held the Munich analogy in mind, that if he didn't fight this
smaller war it would lead to a larger one. And so two different men,
different times, different outlooks, and I think the result would have been
quite different if Kennedy had lived.

GROSS: Robert Dallek is the author of a new biography of John F. Kennedy
called "An Unfinished Life." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, more on Kennedy and the Vietnam War. We continue our
conversation with Robert Dallek about his biography of JFK. Also, linguist
Geoff Nunberg considers the original American game show, the spelling bee.
And Milo Miles reviews the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Robert Dallek, author
of a new biography of John F. Kennedy called "An Unfinished Life." Dallek is
also the author of a two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. When we left
off, we were talking about Kennedy and Vietnam.

You say Kennedy wanted to keep Vietnam off the front pages of the newspapers.
Did he try to control the press?

Mr. DALLEK: Yes, without question. He tried to get David Halberstam, who was
The New York Times correspondent in Saigon--he tried to force The New York
Times to remove him from Saigon. We remember David Halberstam now as the
author of "The Best and the Brightest" and as something of an anti-war
exponent, but in 1962, '63, Halberstam was an advocate of a more effective
American effort in Vietnam. The book he published in 1965, "The Making of a
Quagmire," argued the case for the idea that the United States should not lose
Vietnam, that we should make a more effective effort to succeed there. This
bothered Kennedy a great deal because he saw Halberstam, as The New York Times
man in Saigon, in a position to force this issue onto the public's
consciousness, and he wanted to remove Halberstam as a consequence.

May I take up one other point about all this?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. DALLEK: People have said to me, `Well, but could Kennedy have gotten out
of Vietnam?' OK, maybe he intended to, or he wanted to. We'll never know, of
course. It's counterfactual history. But could he have done it? Well, look
at the polling data. The Gallup Polls--1961, '62, '63, there were no Gallup
Polls on Vietnam. The first Gallup Poll I found was in April of 1964, and the
public was asked what they knew about Vietnam, and only 37 percent said they
knew anything about Vietnam.

A year later, April 1965, after Johnson had begun the bombing of North
Vietnam, the campaign known as Rolling Thunder, Americans were asked what they
thought the outcome would be in Vietnam in five years. Only 22 percent said
they thought it would be a pro-American government there; 45 percent said they
thought it would either be a neutralist or a pro-Communist government.

In the summer of '65, after Johnson had escalated the war by putting in--or
announcing he was going to put in 100,000 ground troops, the public was asked
again what the thought the future of Vietnam would be. And a majority said
that it would end up like Korea, that there would be a kind of a stalemate or
a neutralist arrangement there. So the public was not invested in the idea
that we fight and win Vietnam. And it seems to me in '64, and even more
importantly in '65 when Kennedy would have been starting his second term,
there would have been the opportunity for him to get out of Vietnam.

GROSS: What are some of the things that you think might have been different,
in addition to Vietnam, had Kennedy lived and been re-elected for a second

Mr. DALLEK: If Kennedy had been re-elected to a second term in 1964, I think
he would have carried into the Congress with him very substantial majorities
of the sort that Lyndon Johnson had with his victory over Goldwater in '64.
And I think Kennedy would have put across all the domestic legislation that
was later folded into the Great Society under Johnson. Remember that civil
rights and the federal aid to elementary, secondary, higher education,
Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, departments of Transportation and
Housing and Urban Development were all JFK ideas. These were all on Kennedy's
agenda, and they all were realized during the Johnson presidency. But if
Kennedy had been re-elected, these measures, reform measures, I think all
would have been passed and would have become part of the Kennedy record.

I think a hundred years from now, people will look back on the Kennedy-Johnson
administrations. They'll be much more folded into one, and they'll see the
domestic achievements as not simply Johnson's, and certainly not simply as
Kennedy's, but as an amalgam of what the two men did in the presidency.

GROSS: Now you write that in 1988, 75 historians and journalists described
JFK as, quote, "the most overrated public figure in American history."

Mr. DALLEK: Yes.

GROSS: Why did they reach that conclusion? Can you say?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, because when you ask the public--and there was a recent
poll again asking the public who are the greatest presidents in American
history, John F. Kennedy came in second after Abraham Lincoln. In these many
years since his death, this question's been asked repeatedly and repeatedly
John Kennedy ranks in the top three or four. And, of course, on the face of
it, it simply seems unpersuasive. After all, he served for only a thousand
days, the sixth shortest presidency in the country's history. And so
professional historians looking at this take their distance and say, `Well,
he's the most overrated president in American history.'

Where would Kennedy rank if, in fact, he had lived and had a second term? I
think he could have ended up as someone on a par with Theodore Roosevelt,
Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman, that is in the rank of near-great presidents.
Of course, we'll never be able to say because this was cut off and he only
served a thousand days.

GROSS: You write that John F. Kennedy was worried about the radical right.
What people, which groups, was he worried about?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, there was a vigorous right-wing movement, the John Birch
Society, for example, in the United States in the 1960s. It was fiercely
anti-Communist, fiercely opposed to expansion of federal authority in the
domestic sphere. It was all right with the right wing if you built up the
American military; purposes of defense were legitimate in their eyes. But
they were decidedly opposed to any kind of expansion of domestic authority or
federal reform activities.

And so Kennedy was very worried that the right wing in America, which had a
significant following and a lot of them were based in the South and in Texas
and could stir up all sorts of hostilities between the United States and
Communist countries. And he felt compelled to rein these folks in, or to keep
them from being too boisterous and too vocal in their agitation of the
anti-Communist issue. Barry Goldwater was their darling. In 1964, remember,
Goldwater said things like we ought to think about lobbing one into the men's
room in the Kremlin. And this had huge appeal to people on the extreme right
and people in that John Birch Society.

GROSS: Was the extreme right out to get JFK?

Mr. DALLEK: Oh, without question. The extreme right despised him, thought
he was a--that he betrayed American interests, that he didn't invade Cuba in
1961 and topple the Castro regime was a sign of weakness. And in the John
Birch Society, which was full of paranoid speculation and paranoid thinking,
that Kennedy was maybe pro-Communist. I mean, they said the most outlandish
things about American leaders. Remember, you had a history of McCarthyism in
the 1950s and this right-wing, anti-Communist hysteria, evangelism one might
say, and they despised Kennedy.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Dallek, author of a new biography of JFK called "An
Unfinished Life." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Robert Dallek. His new book, "An Unfinished Life," is a
biography of John F. Kennedy.

Robert Dallek is my guest, and he's written a new biography of John F. Kennedy
called "An Unfinished Life."

Having written the biographies of two presidents, do you find yourself
wondering what information will be revealed about President Bush 10, 20, 30
years from now? How will his presidency, how will his life read differently
than it does now?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, it always reads differently and we, of course, learn a
great deal more than we knew at the time. This is the historian's function,
and that's why we're so eager to preserve records, be they e-mails or printed
materials or telephone conversations, if that's possible, because we want to
get at the actual workings of an administration. Ronald Reagan's presidency,
for example--we still are nowhere near getting the full presidential record.
How much was Reagan in control? How much was he on top of various issues? He
claimed a kind of ignorance over Iran-Contra, and is this accurate? We'll, in
time, learn, I believe, from the internal workings and records of that
administration. And in time, we'll learn a great deal more about the inner
workings of the Bush administration and of the Clinton administration from the
records that come to hand 20, 30, more like 40 and even 50 years from now.

GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think new regulations under the Bush
administration have made it more difficult for historians and biographers to
get access to certain information. Certain information will be locked up for
a longer period of time. Why don't you kind of explain what that's about.

Mr. DALLEK: Well, President Bush has issued an executive order which allows
presidents and vice presidents to hold back on revealing presidential
materials in perpetuity if the family chooses to keep them closed. This lots
of historians, archivists, journalists and members of Congress protest is a
violation of the Presidential Papers Act of 1976. And this is being contested
in the courts, the president's executive order, because it will have a
chilling effect on the ability of the historians and biographers and
journalists to obtain materials about a presidential administration even 40,
50, a hundred years from now.

This is a constant problem that historians struggle against. Abraham
Lincoln's papers were held by the family and did not become available until
1947, and Lincoln had been killed in 1865. So this is a primary concern that
historians have.

GROSS: Give me an example from the Kennedy book of personal papers that you
got access to with information that you think it's really important that the
public know.

Mr. DALLEK: Well, the material on Kennedy's health. There were the Janet
Travell files that had been at the library for almost 40 years, or ever since
the library had been opened. Biographers had asked for access to these
materials in the past and they had been denied. I requested permission and
there's a three-member committee that had control over these papers, and the
committee agreed to open them to me. It took something like over two years,
two and a half years for me to gain access, which I was very pleased.

And then when I went to the library with a medical colleague who helped me
read and understand the medical materials, we were startled by the sort of
candid record that we had before us. I knew at once this was going to be an
unsanitized record when I saw the cardboard boxes that they brought out on the
trolley in the Kennedy Library, because normally presidential materials are in
what are distinctive presidential archive boxes and these were just in raw
cardboard boxes. It was clear to me that these papers had not been sorted or
processed yet. And, of course, that's very exciting to the historian because
it means nobody can sanitize them or pull anything out of it that they feel
would be a sensitive revelation.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK. So you got access to this health information. I find it
fascinating, I know a lot of people do, but make the case that it's important
as history.

Mr. DALLEK: Well, it's important to history because it seems to me it's
terribly important for us to know the health history of presidents. Lots of
presidents have had health problems which they've hidden from the public.
Grover Cleveland had a cancer of the jaw. He was operated on in 1893 on a
yacht on the East River off of Manhattan, and this was never know to the
public. It wasn't revealed until 1917. Woodrow Wilson; a stroke which
incapacitated him. Essentially, Mrs. Wilson ran the government for roughly
the last 18 months of the Wilson presidency. This was held back from the
public. Franklin Roosevelt; 1944 and early '45 at the Yalta Conference,
Winston Churchill's physician, Lord Moran said, `FDR is a dying man, he'll be
dead in three months. He has hardening of the arteries of the brain.'
Roosevelt never should have run again in 1944. Kennedy's cover-up of his
health problems in 1960.

I don't think we'll ever want to do this again, to have a candidate for the
presidency who has the extent of the health problems Kennedy had and took the
kinds of and variety of medications he was on. Now he made a bet, as I said
earlier, and he succeeded; he carried it off. But shouldn't he have
incorporated or included the public in that bet? He didn't. And so I think
it's an important process that historians at least get to look at the health
records of presidents. I, in general, am for the privacy of medical records.
But when it comes to presidents and the men who've had their fingers on the
nuclear trigger, it seems to me we want to know as much as we possibly can
about their physical and mental health. And it should be part of our
consideration in deciding whether we want to cast the vote for that individual
or not.

GROSS: Well, Robert Dallek, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. DALLEK: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Robert Dallek is the author of a new biography of John F. Kennedy
called "An Unfinished Life."

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Commentary: Evolution of the spelling bee

The new documentary "Spellbound" tells the story of a group of young
participants in the annual National Spelling Bee held in Washington, DC. Our
linguist Geoff Nunberg liked the film, and has these thoughts on the curious
institution of the spelling bee and its significance in American life.


Mark Twain claimed that the ability to spell well was an inborn talent like a
photographic memory. If that's true, God seems to have distributed the gift
pretty democratically, with no regard for more general intellectual
capacities. Or at least that's what I like to think being one of the mass of
people who've never quite grasped the distinction between -ible and -able.

But Americans have always placed a singular importance on spelling. In fact,
the spelling bee was the original American game show. It was born in Colonial
times when the attainment of correct spelling was regarded as a symbol of
cultivation. Back then, the contests were called spelling schools or spelling
matches. Horace Greeley reminisced fondly about his success as a spelling
prodigy when he was a boy in New Hampshire around 1815. As he put it,
`Spelling was a natural strength for a child of tenacious memory and no
judgment.' And whatever Mark Twain's reservations about the value of
spelling, he prided himself on being a champion speller as a youth in

By the mid-19th century, the contest had become an adult pastime, as well.
Brett Hart recounted a spelling competition in the California mining camps
that ended in a fight with Bowie knives when two contestants disagreed over
whether eiderduct(ph) began with an I or an E. The phrase `spelling bee'
itself entered the language in the 1870s when the competitions became a
popular mass entertainment. More than 4,000 people attended one bee at the
Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1875, and a disturbance broke out when the
audience judged that one contestant had been unfairly eliminated for
misspelling `receipt.'

After a period of eclipse, the bees were revived again in the 1920s as a way
of encouraging the civic virtues of literacy among schoolchildren. One
enthusiast described them as an antidote to jazz and frivolity. The first
national bee was held in 1925, and for the last 60 years, the event has been
sponsored by Scripps Howard.

Jeff Blitz's "Spellbound" is an engaging and surprisingly moving documentary
that follow the fortunes of eight contestants in the 1999 national bee held in
Washington, DC. Some of the kids are motivated by pure competitive spirit.
But for most of them, the bee stands for the struggle to move up and on in
American life. Angela's a Texas girl whose father came to America from Mexico
as an undocumented immigrant. He still speaks no English, and his trip to
Washington to watch his daughter compete in the national seems to seal his
life's accomplishment. Ashley is a black girl from the Washington, DC,
projects who describes herself as a prayer warrior. And Neil from San
Clemente, California, is the son of a successful Indian immigrant with a
boundless faith in the American dream. `In America,' the father says, `if you
work hard, you'll make it.'

The kids are all bright and winning and incredibly dedicated, and you feel
their anguish as they're eliminated one after the other in a cruel prototype
of "Survivor." But while that experience would have been familiar to Greeley
or Twain, this is not your father's spelling bee. Back in 1925, the
contestants were given the sort of words that an ordinary literate citizen
would be expected to know, items like `promiscuous,' `intelligible' and
`fracas.' In 1932, Dorothy Greenwald from Des Moines, Iowa, walked away with
the laurels when she was able to spell `knack.' But like a lot of other
competitive events, the spelling bee has become a lot more specialized and
intense over the course of time. In recent years, the winning words in the
national bee have included such bowerbird treasures as `xanthosis,'
`vivisepulchre,' `euonym,' `succedaneum' and `prosipience.'

That inevitably changes the significance of the exercise. At this level, in
fact, the competition isn't really about the capriciousness of English
spelling; it has more to do with the indistinctness of English pronunciation,
which merges P's and B's and T's and D's and which reduces every unstressed
vowel to a blurry `oh.' That isn't much of an impediment when the word is one
you already recognize like, `intelligible' or `fracas.' But it makes it
impossible to pin down the spelling of an unfamiliar word, particularly when
it's derivation is obscure.

In fact, I had the feeling that the pronouncer was often making an effort to
keep the pronunciations as uninformative and ambiguous as possible. You can
sense the contestants' perplexity as a pronouncer feeds them words like
`apocope,' `hellebore,' `clavicin'(ph) and `allegar,'(ph) items that most
people can happily live their lives without ever encountering. Occasionally,
the kid's face is brightened when they recognize a word that happens to be on
their cram lists, but usually, they're reduced to mere guessing. I felt a
special sympathy for the kid who was eliminated when he blew `opsimath,' a
word for somebody who begins learning late in life. `O-B-S-O,' he started,
but the correct spelling was O-P-S-I, opsi. That's the Greek word for `late,'
as anyone will know who recognizes the connection to the other household word,

Still, even if spelling isn't a very good indicator of intellectual capacity,
you have now doubt that most of the kids profiled in "Spellbound" will succeed
in later life. America still rewards dedication and hard work just as it did
in Horace Greeley's day. And the modern spelling bee rewards something else,
as well. You have to have an instinct for understanding indistinct commands
to perform arbitrary and often pointless acts and somehow figure out what's
expected of you. In today's America, that's another talent that serves you

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University, and he's the
author of "The Way We Talk Now."

The documentary, "Spellbound," opened at the Film Forum in New York, and will
be playing in theaters around the country.

Coming up, music critic Milo Miles on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival continues to bring
together vibrant musical acts nearly 35 years afters its inception

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began the same year Woodstock was
held, 1969. But while the legend of the big festival now seems impossibly
distant, the little local festival has become a vibrant ongoing institution.
Keeping such an operation going for almost 35 years requires more than luck.
Music critic Milo Miles went to this year's festival a couple of weeks ago,
and has been thinking about why its mix of musical acts keeps attracting big

(Soundbite of music)

MILO MILES reporting:

It's tough to shock people these days, but when I would tell folks who had
been to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that I had never been there,
they were shocked. Now that I've thrown away my JazzFest virginity, I can see
what the shouting was about. The mix of ages and ethnicities in the audience
is unmatched, and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos got it right when he called out,
`Hello, music lovers!' See, I've never seen such large crowds devoted to
hearing concerts first and foremost.

Attendance was down for the second year in a row, but really, there were just
enough people there to keep the lines short and the outdoor stages halfway
visible. The sound was outstanding and delays or schedule glitches were rare.
The best trick, though, is presenting a lineup that's as varied but coherent
as the JazzFest managed to do.

The steam heat of New Orleans has made the styles of music native to the area
melt and flow together: jazz, blues, zydeco, R&B, Cajun, swamp pop. But it's
now secret that for about 30 years now, New Orleans hasn't been producing
major acts as regularly as it once did. The Marsalis family won't keep
JazzFest viable by themselves. So what's new that keeps the heels clicking

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Vocalist #1: (Singing in Cajun)

MILES: In the last 10 years, two trends have lifted the Jazz & Heritage
Festival: a savvy selection of big-name attractions and the popularity of
so-called `jam bands.' The stars that fit into JazzFest are more varied than
you might think. Although I have almost opposite feelings about them, Lucinda
Williams and Ben Harper are natural adds. Bob Dylan has obvious roots
connections, but so do The O'Jays. As for those acts who do not belong, like
Crosby, Stills & Nash--well, it's much easier to avoid shows at JazzFest than
to catch them.

The popularity of jam bands at JazzFest is both predictable and problematic.
Years ago, the group Blues Traveler was a hit at JazzFest and started a trend.
Well-known jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic still play the fest. The
trouble is jam band stuff is music based on music rather than well-grounded,
cultural traditions. And I have trouble with any style that rambles on so

But JazzFest has outlasted many trends in the past, and as L.L. Cool J's
performance confirmed, hip-hop groups that understand R&B basics, like De La
Soul and The Roots, should become staples of future JazzFests. And there
will always be a few sharp new people playing the blues.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Vocalist #2: (Singing) I said, `Hey, little girl. Hey, little
girl. Yeah. Hey, little girl. Hey, little girl. I'm in love with you,
baby, and I hope you feel the same. Hey, little girl. Honey, you sure look
fine. Hey, little girl. Honey, now you sure look fine. The only thing I
hate--honey, you're not mine. Hey, little girl.'

MILES: But perhaps the best way to explain the enduring appeal of JazzFest is
to use a handy rule that combines taste and ear: the finest New Orleans music
and food billed from clear basic ingredients that tickle and tingle. You can
listen to recordings of New Orleans funk and eat Northern imitations of Cajun
and Creole cuisine, and that's all right. But if you hear the music and eat
the food in the place where they're at home, only then do you know what it
means to miss New Orleans.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music critic based in Cambridge.

(Soundbite of "Walking To New Orleans")

Mr. FATS DOMINO: (Singing) This time I'm walking to New Orleans. I'm walking
to New Orleans. I'm going to need two pair of shoes when I get through
walking these blues when I get back to New Orleans.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross

(Soundbite of "Walking To New Orleans")

Mr. DOMINO: (Singing) ...that a shame.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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