Historian Robert Dallek recently made headlines when, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, he confirmed decades-old rumors that John F. Kennedy was more ill than the public imagined throughout his presidency. With former Kennedy Administration officials permitting Dallek access to long-guarded medical records, he revealed that JFK experienced near-constant back pains, suffered from Addisons Disease and regularly took painkillers and other medications-even as physicians released reports saying that Kennedy was in "excellent" health.
The article, a forerunner to a new JFK biography Dallek is writing, concludes that the Kennedy medical records "reveal the scope and intensity of his physical suffering were beyond what we had previously imagined."
But buried within Dalleks provocative article is a charge almost as sensational as the Kennedy medical revelations: Kennedys 1960 Republican opponent Richard Nixon, he argues, might have been the mastermind of campaign-year burglaries in the offices of Kennedys physicians in unsuccessful attempts to get the candidates medical records (both doctors had them filed under a code name).
Noting that the robberies "have the aura of Watergate and of the break-in at the Beverly Hills office of Daniel Ellsbergs psychiatrist" a dozen years later, Dallek writes that "it appears Richard Nixon may have tried at one point to gain access to Kennedys medical history." While the thieves are still unidentified, said Dallek, "it is reasonable to speculate they were Nixon operatives."
Watergate-style dirty tricks 12 years before Watergate? The problem with this charge is that, while there are many readers who will automatically believe anything bad about Nixon (as there are those who will believe anything good about Kennedy), Dallek offers no evidence. And those who were around Nixon during his first presidential bid dismiss the break-in story as out of the question.
"It couldnt have happened, was never even considered, and this is just a case of looking to take another crack at Richard Nixon," said Herb Klein, who as Nixons 1960 campaign press secretary was one of small group of people who made the decisions in the campaign.
"Anything that would have been close to [a break-in] would have been discussed with me and it wasnt," Klein told me. "We would never have gotten into that sort of thing." He added, "Im amazed how [Dallek] presupposes that something that happened in 1972 could have happened in 1960, when there was an entirely different group around Mr. Nixon."
Klein did say that JFKs health was indeed discussed by the Nixon high command. "But the question of his health was first raised not by us, but by [Democratic nomination opponent and eventual running mate] Lyndon Johnson and [LBJ campaign manager John] Connally before Kennedy was nominated," said Klein. "We stayed clear of two things-his health and his religion. Mr. Nixon felt strongly they were not issues."
Gen. Don Hughes, Nixons vice presidential appointments secretary, seconded Kleins opinion. "I never heard a hint about any break-in at Kennedys doctors," he said. "In fact, I would say absolutely not, it could never have occurred because I was with the Vice President on a daily basis during the campaign and I would have heard about it."
Irwin Gellman, author of the much-praised Nixon biography The Contender, questioned how Dallek could speculate on a 1960 break-in "when he has never even looked at one of the campaign memoranda between Nixon, Klein, and Finch at the Nixon Library and I have read all 400 pieces."
Dallek conceded he had not read the 1960 memoranda or even been to the Nixon Library. His source for speculating about failed campaign-year robbery attempts at the offices of physicians Jane Travell and Eugene Cohen is a 1983 Kennedy biography by Herbert Parmet. In a discussion with me, Dallek appeared to backtrack a bit. "To say so definitely that Nixon was behind this is hyperbolic and Im not saying he was the source," he told me. "The scholars job is to provoke debate and discussion. Im content to raise the issue."
But Parmet, Dalleks source for the break-in story, says, "I never went that far." In his book JFK, Parmet wrote that Cohens office was "ransacked" and "Dr. Travell found that someone had tried to break the lock on her door." Parmet learned of these things from Travells oral history at the JFK Library.
"No one else has come to the conclusion that Nixon or his people were involved in the break-in except Dallek," said Parmet. "There is no evidence and it is an absurd conclusion."