George Will

WASHINGTON -- Landing in New York on a speaking trip, the president impulsively decided not to have a motorcade into Manhattan, so his limousine stopped at 10 traffic lights. At one, a woman ran to the car and snapped a photograph inches from his face. A policeman exclaimed, ``Oh, my God. She could have been an assassin.'' It was Nov. 15, 1963.

On the Sunday night of Oct. 28, 1962, at the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy quipped to his brother Robert, ``This is the night I should go to the theater,'' a reference to Lincoln's visit to Ford's Theatre after the Civil War was won. Thoughts of death were not new to the man whose father had medicines stored for him in banks around the world. They were to treat chronic illnesses so serious that he had been given the last rites of the Catholic church at least three times before he became president at age 43.

Even if he had not gone to Dallas, he probably would have died long before now. He would have been killed partly by the horrifying cocktails of pills and injections -- sometimes six Novocain shots in his back in a day; one drug drove his cholesterol count above 400 -- mixed by doctors sometimes unaware of what the others were administering just to keep him ambulatory and alert.

The soaring arc of Kennedy's truncated life combined success achieved by discipline, and sexual recklessness -- 70 calls through the White House switchboard to a mistress he shared with a Mafia don; said another woman, Marilyn Monroe, ``I think I made his back feel better'' -- that risked everything.

In ``President Kennedy: Profile of Power,'' much the best book on Kennedy, Richard Reeves says that Kennedy -- ``very impatient, addicted to excitement, living his life as if it were a race against boredom'' -- was well-matched to his moment. He was a man in a hurry at a time when the pulse of communication was accelerating.

In seeking the presidency, Reeves wrote, ``he did not wait his turn.'' One of the elders he elbowed aside, Adlai Stevenson, said, ``That young man! He never says `please' ...'' When a friend urged Kennedy to wait beyond 1960, he said, ``No, they will forget me. Others will come along.''

Always there was his fatalistic sense how perishable everything was, and his ironic awareness of how nothing is what it seems -- least of all himself. Campaigning in 1960 as a vessel of ``vigor,'' his health often forced him to spend about half of the day in bed.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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