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McFeatters: The real JFK conspiracy

President John F. Kennedy departs for Washington followed

President John F. Kennedy departs for Washington followed by his military aide, Major General Chester V. Clifton in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Jan. 5, 1961) Photo Credit: AP

The presidency of John F. Kennedy, and especially its abrupt and brutal ending, seems an inexhaustible source of conspiracy theories - the grassy knoll, the mob, Cuban assassins, a second shooter, a cabal of right-wing Texas oilmen. As soon as one theory is debunked another comes along to restart the conspiracy machine.

However, one conspiracy is real: John Kennedy was a very sick man, at times a physical and psychological cripple, and Kennedy and his aides conspired mightily to cover up his ailments on the not unreasonable grounds that had they been known Richard Nixon would probably have won the election.

Kennedy ingested a veritable pharmacy of medicines, as many as eight at once, to keep going - codeine, Demerol and methadone for pain; hydrocortisone and testosterone to make up for an adrenal insufficiency caused by Addison's disease; antidiarrheal drugs; steroids for strength and collitis; procaine injections for back spasms; medicine to lower his abnormally high cholesterol levels; antibiotics for periodic infections; Ritalin and Librium for anxiety; barbiturates for sleep; and antihistamines for allergies.

And these are only from the few medical records that have been released and the relative handful of doctors and historians who have been allowed to examine them. His medical records are closely guarded by a three-member panel of Kennedy loyalists and the panel members have been very sparing of access.

Misrepresenting, concealing and downright lying about a president's health problems is almost as old as the White House itself.

The severity of Woodrow Wilson's stroke in his second term was known only to a few close advisers; in the pre-TV days many Americans were unaware that Franklin Roosevelt could not walk; Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson similarly suffered from heart attacks downplayed by their staffs; and it was only years later that the public found out how close Ronald Reagan came to dying from a would-be assassin's bullet.

In a remarkable display of stoicism, determination and self-control, Kennedy performed his public duties unflinchingly even though as one internal medicine specialist observed, "The most remarkable thing was the extent to which Kennedy was in pain every day of his presidency."

The leader of an administration that promoted a bustling can-do style and whose watchword was "vigor" could not put a sock or shoe on his left foot unaided. And that was the Kennedy conspiracy.

Dale McFeatters is a nationally syndicated columnist.