Posted: Nov 20, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

The Kennedy years had, as Reeves writes, ``an astonishing density of events,'' from the building of the Berlin Wall to the Birmingham church bombing, and the integration of the University of Mississippi a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was a quick study, with much to learn.

Astonishingly callow when inaugurated, he was unable to stem or even discern the intragovernmental delusions and deceits that propelled the Bay of Pigs invasion just 87 days into his presidency. Much flowed from that debacle. Kennedy said that in order to reverse Nikita Khrushchev's assessment of him as weak, he had to find somewhere to show U.S. resolve: ``The only place we can do that is in Vietnam. We have to send more people there.'' Soon he was at the Vienna summit, where Khrushchev, impervious to his charm, concluded that he was ``a pygmy.''

Only foreign affairs held Kennedy's attention. His response to the ``freedom riders'' who lit a fuse of the civil rights revolution was to ask his civil rights adviser, who was white, ``Can't you get your goddamned friends off those buses?'' But foreign affairs were plentiful enough.

Plentiful, and a sure cure for boredom. When on May 30, 1961, Raphael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, was assassinated, Kennedy asked Secretary of State Dean Rusk: ``Were we involved?'' Rusk replied: ``I don't think so. There's some confusion.''

In 1963, too, the days were eventful. Twenty-two days after a Saigon coup encouraged by the United States -- it produced regime change through the assassination of South Vietnam's two principal leaders -- and on the day a ballpoint pen containing poison intended to kill Fidel Castro was scheduled to be delivered by CIA agent Desmond Fitzgerald to a potential assassin, Kennedy awoke in Fort Worth. He was to speak there, then fly to Dallas.

Looking down from his hotel room at the platform from which he would speak, he said to an aide, ``With all those buildings around it, the Secret Service couldn't stop someone who really wanted to get you.'' It was Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.