Thursday, February 14, 2008

Personal Asides: My Conversation with an Old McCain Buddy…Dr. Feelgood” Comes to the Kennedys’ Aid

Old McCain Buddy.

He isn’t from Illinois but was just passing through. He used to work for John McCain and helped guide his legislative strategy. I met him many years ago…in 1980 or so…when I was traveling to Washington, D. C. every week for The Quaker Oats Company. He was a House staffer then and he introduced me to the Naval liaison to the House, the newly returned war hero John McCain. As the world knows, McCain moved to Arizona, married a beautiful beer heiress and ran for the House. Elected in 1982, my friend began his association with him then, serving as a committee aide or legislative assistant. He kept up his association and rates as a McCain friend now (not employed by him) but deeply interested in his presidential campaign. From time to time I’ve kept in touch with him to take readings on McCain. Thus I was particularly pleased when not long ago he called and said he would be in Chicago on business (he is not a McCain staffer).

We had lunch and the gist of the conversation went like this. It helps my concept of the man who will certainly be the 2008 Republican nominee.

Me: There is no doubt that McCain was once a conservative and did a lot of switching after the 2000 presidential race which he lost to George W. Bush. Did he experience an epiphany or something?

He: Not at all. The radical switch came as result of bad temper, rage, tirade and pique. You know John--.

Me: No I don’t really.

He: He is irascible, short-tempered, has a temper like a blowtorch. He was hotter than I ever saw him following that loss and he resolved to make Bush pay for his victory which he felt was the use of innuendo and rumors to make the case that he had fathered a black baby out of wedlock.

Me: Did Bush or his people leak it?

He: You know better than that. How do I know? These things happen in every campaign. A certain underground takes over and floats rumors, people who can’t be identified with the campaign. You and I are old enough to remember Dick Tuck, the dirty trickster who worked…I say “for” JFK but who was an independent agent. One day Nixon was speaking to a group of Chinese in San Francisco in 1960 and the cameras were recording it. An Asian guy hoisted a sign from the crowd in perfect Mandarin. The picture made the national wires. Then Chinese experts deciphered the words. It said, “Nixon: What about the Howard Hughes loan?” That referred to a $205,000 loan made by Hughes to Nixon’s brother Donald which was never repaid. Bobby Kennedy investigated it privately. One thing led to another and Dick Tuck played around with it.

Me: You’re saying that the Bush people leaked a totally scurrilous and untrue story…

He: Thomas you’re getting to be a self-righteous pain in the posterior. I’m not saying that at all. Jeez if I have to explain to you the marvelous role rumors in the bars play in campaigns, we’ll be here all night.

Me: But that kicked it off with John, then?

He: No. But let me tell you about this guy McCain. You get locked in solitary for 5 and a half years and get beaten up every day and you’ll start acting a little paranoid too.

Me: Are you saying he’s paranoid?

He: Well, frankly, yeah. What was Nixon? Paranoid. He said on tape that in this business if you’re not paranoid about what your enemies will do to you, you’re nuts.

Me: You’re saying that after Bush got in, McCain wanted to get even.

He: Exactly.

Me: How’d he do it?

He: He stormed around and applied a very personal test to legislative positions. He voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001. We talked about it a great deal. His original view was that he’d zing Bush by saying there were no corresponding budget cuts to justify them. But later he zinged Bush by applying a populist angle. He said “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief.” That statement got him great favor with the left.

Me: God, I hated that. Pure Obama demagoguery.

He: Of course. But he wasn’t to be reasoned with then. He knew how I felt about it. It was. When I told him that he said `screws him’. Meaning--.

Me: Bush.

He: Exactly.

Me: What you’re describing is a man who is a whirlwind of emotion and temper who in a very important time used pique to jab his president.

He: Now Thomas, do you imagine that in the 221 years of this republic this was the only occasion when a rival harpooned a president?

Me: No. What about immigration? There he was on the side of the president?

He: He sort of gravitated into that before the president got there. If he had to do it over again, he would not have done so.

Me: Are we to suppose that the new version of McCain which is a recycling of the old-old McCain is the one we will see if he becomes president?

He: Yes. Listen here’s a guy who told Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to go f--- himself. A guy who called Arlen Specter an a------. Do you know who I think he would most resemble as president?

Me: Who?

He: Andrew Jackson. Combative, mercurial and thin-skinned, with Scotch Irish blood like McCain. He could hate with a biblical fury and change overnight. Carried two bullets in him from duels, one removed from his arm which unparalyzed it and the other near his heart which nobody wanted to fool around with. Served in the Revolution, joining at 13. Was captured—the only president thus far to have been a prisoner of war. Named major general of volunteers in 1812 he was ordered to demilitarize his force. He decided not to. The country was being threatened by Indians and the maverick Jackson marched his army to Talladega and defeated a force of 1,000 all the while he and his troops were wracked by dysentery, inadequate provisions and threats of desertion. The country was fascinated as he turned around and defeated the Creeks under Red Eagle in Horseshoe Bend in 1814 after ordering the safe evacuation of Indian women and children. His right hand guy was Sam Houston. Promoted to major general in the regular army he invaded British occupied Florida and captured Pensacola in June, 1814. Then he marched to New Orleans and defends it from British attack. He imposes martial law, dissolves the state legislature, executed deserters, suppressed free expression, I’ll grant that—and suspends habeas corpus. He becomes the hero of the age. A judge fines him $1000 for habeas corpus but the Congress in admiration pays the fine. Then when the British try to retake New Orleans under cover of early morning fog, he lays down a withering barrage of rifle fire that wipes out more than 2,000 British. He lost just 110. Technically New Orleans was won after the Brits signed the peace treaty but he gave us a helluva leg up.

Me: What you’re saying is that what Rudy Giuliani boasted of, being tough enough to win the terrorist war comes home in spades with John McCain.

He: Exactly.

Me: But that was what Jackson did as a hero in the war. A maverick who charmed the country. As president--?

He: He’s a genuine American hero, Tom. Much more so than Rudy. John is not a guy you’d have for any task—but for this one, facing terrorism, he’s unparalleled. Even here Jackson is important. The changing nature of the country requires more than white-shoe conservatism. Huckabee whom I think is a charlatan has proven that. The people like a maverick, a guy who even though he’s a Republican isn’t in awe of big business. Jackson railed against the Bank of the United States. He warred with Nicholas Biddle who represented the powerful eastern business interests who were unsympathetic to the south and the Midwest. Was he petty? You bet. Let me tell you about Peggy Eaton.

Me: I know all about her. She married the secretary of war and all the cabinet wives called her a tramp which reminded Jackson of what his enemies called his wife Rachel…so he demanded the cabinet resign.

He: All except Van Buren who was a widower. A lot of excitement. And do you know how Jackson has ended up in the purview of history?

Me: You do, I’m sure.

He: Rates sixth highest, higher than Thomas Jefferson in the view of historians.

More coming next week.

Just a Shot Will Do Fine.

One of the most intriguing episodes in the book “Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House” by Sally Bedell Smith, a contributing editor to “Vanity Fair” and an award-winning biographer, had to do with Dr. Max Jacobson, a shadowy figure who had a reputation for injections laced with amphetamines that removed pain and made the subject feel better. JFK had complained to an old college colleague, Chuck Spaulding, author of a best-selling comic memoir at age 25 who dabbled in Hollywood screenwriting and Manhattan advertising who “shared JFK’s fondness for gossip, humor and womanizing” that he had symptoms of fatigue and muscle weakness that “interfered with his concentration and affected his speech.” Spaulding sent Kennedy to Jacobson, “a disheveled figure with fingernails darkened by chemical stains” who had “a strong German accent and a direct manner. He operated on the fringe of a medical practice and his loosely regulated stimulants produced feelings of exhilaration and clarity, although little was yet known about such side effects as agitation, grandiosity, lingering depression and even psychosis.
P. 202.

Among Jacobson’s patients were Oleg Cassini (the fashion designer), Mark Shaw a “Life” photographer admired by Jackie and Spaulding. “Several days before his first debate with Nixon, JFK had secretly visited Jacobson’s office for an injection to relieve symptoms of fatigue and muscle weakness that “interfered with his concentration and affected his speech” according to an unpublished account by Jacobson. Afterwards, Kennedy told Jacobson “he felt cool, calm and very alert.”

Now Kennedy wanted Jacobson’s help for Jackie’s “periodic depression and headaches,” the doctor recalled. After receiving Jackson’s injection, “her mood changed completely.” Kennedy had no need for Jacobson’s services at that time but he was receiving daily procaine shots in the back from Dr. Janet Travell. Still, according to Travell’s records he “had been intermittently afflicted with gastrointestinal problems, urinary tract discomfort, fevers and insomnia.” P. 202.

Kennedy made a mid-May trip to Canada and wrenched his back on the first day “when he and Jackie attended a tree-planting ceremony at the governor-general’s residence. While Jackie politely turned three tiny spadefuls, JFK heaved his shovel repeatedly into the earth around the red oak sapling. He felt stabbing pain but thought it would disappear. Two days of hitting golf balls with Ben Bradlee on the Glen Ora course the following weekend doubtless aggravated the injury, leaving JFK to hobble on crutches at home and in the privacy of the Oval Office. On Tuesday, May 31, Kennedy sneaked Max Jacobson into the White House for four days of amphetamine shots “to relieve his local discomfort” and “provide him with additional stress to cope with stress,” recalled Jacobson. His treatments coincided with the second State of the Union address that Thursday, during which Kennedy ignored many passages in the text and interjected new language. Jacobson noted that Jackie was in `comparatively good spirits’ but she too received the treatments before leaving Wednesday night for five days rest and relaxation at Glen Ora. Concerned about the impact his injury could have on his stamina in the Paris and Vienna meetings, Kennedy asked Jacobson to join him for the trip.” P. 203.

Kennedy arranged for Max Jacobson and his wife “to fly on an Air France charter—a strange journey since they were the only passengers on the plane.” “Even as Kennedy was being treated by Drs. Travel and [George] Burkley Jacobson would sneak into the president’s quarters to administer his injections to Jack and Jackie. When Ted Sorenson asked, `why is he here?’ he was told it was for Jackie, for nerves and tension. Tish Baldrige [Jackie’s chief of staff] regarded Jacobson as a “slimy person” but she felt the shots “didn’t have an impact” on the Kennedys. “I couldn’t notice any difference in their behavior.” P. 204.

“The Kennedys had barely a half hour to settle into the American ambassador’s residence [in Vienna] before JFK’s first meeting with Khrushchev. Almost immediately Max Jacobson was directed to Kennedy’s room. `The meeting may last for a long time,’ JFK told him. `See to it that my back won’t give me any trouble when I get up and move around.’ Jacobson administered his injection and a tanned and youthful Kennedy was next seen bounding out the front door `like a bronco buster released from his chute’ and dashing down the steps to meet his fat, bald guest.’” P. 207.

Bobby Kennedy, ever the faithful watchdog for his brother submitted “samples of Jackson’s serum for examination by the FBI” in June, 1962. “The analysis showed no trace of narcotics—Bobby’s principal concern—but there were evidently no tests done for amphetamines. When Bobby nevertheless cautioned Jack against the shots, the President replied, `I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.’” P. 346.


  1. Not the Father of the Country to be sure - John McCain to me is more of the Dad of Our Country: I could imagine John McCain vowing to 'put a ball through the brain-pan' of political louses. Interesting that younote that some of the very people singled out for McCain's ire are more than worthy of the sobriquets tossed their way.

  2. If McCain can select the Right running mate (Mitt Romney would be my pick, and Romney's speedy endorsement may mean flirtation) then I say he has a cakewalk into the White House.

    If he picks some mushy sap, then the ball game may be rained out-

    Say your prayers folks!

  3. Lovie's LeatherFebruary 15, 2008 at 3:43 PM

    You are really making not hate McCain so much. Finally, a Goldwater military approach... "Flat as a pancake." And by the way, I still have several years of draft eligibility... and Churchill saved the entire world, so don't criticize the man's personality. If it weren't for him, you would be criticizing in German.

  4. By "Old Crotchety" I mean McCain, not you Tom. But I am very interested in reading your follow up article in light of the fact that you're on the record as saying that Andrew Jackson was possibly our worst President. Some years ago you wrote a column in the Sun-Times ranking Presidents and rating them on a scale of 1 to 10. I believe you gave Jackson a rating of "0." I remember telling you that I thought the ranking was too high.

    Andrew Jackson was a terrible President (except for his surpression of South Carolina's attempt to nullify the tariff). His vile temper was in large part the motivator of many of his damaging and unjust actions as President.

    Congressman David Crockett lost a a re-election bid to a Jackson-backed candidate when Crockett vigorously opposed Jackson's shamefull bill to remove the Creek and Cherokee tribes from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.After his defeat Crockett decided to head for Texas and made a famous farewell speech to his former constituents in Nashville, a 30 minute tongue lashing in which he berated his fellow citizens for their mistreatment of the Indians. He ended the speech with the famous phrase "Now I'm goin' to Texas and you can go to Hell!"
    If McCain's temper really is as bad as Jackson's his campaign and or Presidency will likewise go to Hell very quickly. Who are McCain's close advisors? It would seem that he needs to be surrounded by "adults" as much as the inexperienced Obama does.

    -Mike Buck

  5. Who would you choose to lead us in the next battle where the fate of the Nation hangs in the balance- Obama, Clinton, or "Old Crotchety"?