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Biography

During JFK's time in Congress, he experienced some important personal setbacks as well as successes: he was diagnosed with Addison's disease, he married Jacqueline Bouvier, and he underwent extremely risky back surgery. Each of these events impacted his career in different, but profound, ways. Let's find out how.

In 1947, Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's disease, a potentially fatal disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol (a hormone essential for stress response). Symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, and bronzing of the skin (if you wondered how a New England congressman could always look so tan, now you know the reason). In order to manage his chronic disease, Jack was subjected to a strict, daily regimen of shots and pills. However, his medication was not always effective: on a 1947 ocean journey from Britain to the U.S., Jack became so sick that a priest was called to give him his last rites12 During JFK's presidential campaign in 1960, his Addison's became a liability—reporters and political rivals portrayed the illness as a symbol of weakness and questioned Jack's readiness for the presidency. In response, Jack's doctor released a statement falsely asserting that he did not have Addison's (after Jack's death, the doctor admitted the note was a lie).

The second important event that took place during Jack's congressional career was his 1953 marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier, an intelligent and well-connected woman from another wealthy New England family. With Jackie Kennedy, a woman later worshiped by Americans for her style and elegance, as his wife, Jack's allure only increased; together, the couple looked not only strikingly attractive but quintessentially American as well. The two met at a dinner party in 1951 and dated—often sporadically—for the next two years. Throughout his courtship with Jackie, Jack maintained a regular schedule of short-lived affairs, and this trend of infidelity continued throughout their marriage. In 1958, Jack was unknowingly recorded as saying, "being married didn't really mean that you had to be faithful to your wife."13 Jack slept with so many different women that he often referred to them generically as "kid," unable to remember their names.14 Undoubtedly, Jack's philandering was a learned behavior: he had grown up watching his father rather publicly cheat on his mother. Although Jackie (like Rose) was aware of Jack's womanizing—and felt both hurt and humiliated—she did not demand that he stop.

The third event of major importance was Jack's back surgery in 1954. Although Jack had undergone back surgery immediately after returning from the South Pacific in 1944, he still had numerous fractures in his spine that worsened over time, causing him tremendous discomfort. By 1954, the pain had become nearly unbearable—Jack was unable to bend down to put on socks or walk without crutches.15 Because of his Addison's, back surgery was extremely risky, and Jack had a difficult time finding a hospital that was even willing to perform the operation. Ultimately, doctors at the Lahey Clinic in New York performed the lengthy procedure, in which a metal plate was inserted into Jack's spine. After the surgery, Jack contracted an infection and went into a coma; although he survived the near-death experience, he was forced back onto the operating table several months later. Throughout the lengthy ordeal, Jack remained remarkably stoic, rarely complaining or indulging in self-pity, despite the fact that his back pain was only slightly ameliorated by the surgeries.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel, however. In 1954, inspired by Herbert Agar's The Price of Union, Jack conceived of writing an article about political courage. During his months of recuperation from surgery, Jack's "article" idea quickly became a book idea, and Jack spent much of his time in bed dictating passages. With a great deal of help from Ted Sorenson, the finished product, Profiles in Courage, was published in 1956 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957. Jack could now add award-winning author to his list of achievements.

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