Richard Nixon’s Secret War on JFK’s Health

Guest Blog: But Nixon had his dirty health secret, too — he was seeing a shrink

Richard Nixon was in a panic. With only five days to go before the 1960 election, he was trailing in the polls and appeared to be headed for a narrow but certain defeat. But he had one last card to play. It was a gamble, he knew, but Nixon was a gambler, and now was the time to raise the stakes.

Throughout the campaign, both the Kennedy and Nixon camps feared that each had obtained damaging medical information about the other. The Kennedy campaign believed that Nixon had come into possession of Jack’s stolen medical records showing that he had Addison’s disease, and Nixon knew that someone — probably the Kennedys — had hired a private detective and discovered that he’d been a patient of Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, the famed author and psychoanalyst.

With this knowledge, a certain balance had been achieved, one that, in a sense, mirrored the nuclear standoff then in effect between the Russian and the American armed forces — a type of mutual assured destruction. And throughout the general election, the question of the candidates’ health never came up — not until the very last days of the race, when both sides edged toward the brink of all-out medical war.

Desperate and trailing in the polls in the last days of the campaign, Nixon decided that now was the time to reveal Kennedy’s medical secret, even though he risked exposure of his own.

The brinksmanship began on Nov. 3 when Nixon got John Roosevelt, the youngest son of the late Democratic Party icon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to strike the first blow.

Campaigning for Nixon that day in Michigan, Roosevelt, a staunch Republican, issued a challenge to both candidates “to disclose any medical difficulties that might impair their ability to serve as president.”

Nixon, of course, had put him up to it.

The next day, just four days before the election, Nixon raised the stakes again. This time, he had Roosevelt send telegrams to himself and Kennedy, demanding that they make public all medical reports on any ailments that they may have had, and to disclose any treatments they may have been receiving.

In his telegram to Nixon, Roosevelt tossed the vice president a softball, saying that Nixon should come clean on the condition of his knee, which he’d injured during the campaign. No threat to Nixon’s campaign there, since his knee injury had already been covered by the press.

But in his telegram to Kennedy, Roosevelt went for the jugular. He told Kennedy that a medical report released at the time of the Democratic National Convention — the one Jack had Dr. Travell write up for him — “notably failed to disclose the extent of your adrenal insufficiency and what drugs you are taking to compensate for this insufficiency.”

At a news conference later that day in Syracuse, where Roosevelt was stumping for Nixon, the question of Jack Kennedy’s Addison’s disease was brought up for the first time during the general election.

There have been "rumors,” Roosevelt told reporters, “that Senator Kennedy… has or has had Addison’s disease.”

But Nixon wasn’t done yet. The next day, Nov. 5, he raised the ante again when he tried to draw President Eisenhower into the fray. Nixon was campaigning that day in California, but he got another of his surrogates, Walter Williams, formerly President Eisenhower’s undersecretary of the Commerce Department, to try to get Ike to release a statement calling for the candidates to release their medical reports.

Early that morning in Washington, Williams went to see Ann Whitman, Eisenhower’s personal secretary, and pleaded with her to ask Ike to help Nixon out by calling for Nixon and Kennedy to both make public the results of their latest physical examinations. Nixon, he told Whitman, would do so as soon as Ike issued the statement.

Williams then gave her a statement, drawn up by Nixon, that he wanted President Eisenhower to sign that day and issue as his own. It read: “In response to inquiries, I (Dwight D. Eisenhower) am glad to restate my previous position regarding information about the health of candidates for the presidency. In 1956, before the election, I asked my physicians to make available for public information full and complete records on my health. I believe that all candidates for the presidency have an obligation to do this.”

Ann Whitman gave the statement to President Eisenhower and appended a postscript of her own, saying that a “note of desperation in Nixon camp prompted the attached suggestion to the president.

Whitman jotted down in her White House diary that day that Jim Hagerty, President Eisenhower’s press secretary, was none too happy about Nixon’s last-minute ploy. “Jim Hagerty,” she wrote, “called it a ‘cheap, lousy, stinking political trick.’”

She also noted in her diary that when Captain Evan Aurand, Ike’s naval attaché, tried to intervene on Nixon’s behalf, “the president would not let Captain Aurand tell him all of it and said, ‘I am not making myself a party to anything that has to do with the health of the candidates.’”

This was obviously not the answer Nixon wanted to hear from Eisenhower, but he shouldn’t have been surprised; Ike never really liked him that much anyway.

Eisenhower, Dr. Hutschnecker later wrote, “was decidedly lacking in warmth or acceptance toward Nixon; as a former army general, he rarely took anyone’s advice, let alone Nixon’s.”

Rebuffed by Eisenhower, Nixon decided it was time to play the last card up his sleeve.

Campaigning that last Saturday up and down his home state of California, Nixon flew into Oakland International Airport later that afternoon, and in the pouring rain, rode in a motorcade to Oakland City Hall, where a crowd of 15,000 supporters waited to greet him. The rain had stopped before he started speaking, but many in the crowd still had their umbrellas up.

Nixon, the New York Times reported, “expressed his willingness to make public his full medical records in answer to health questions raised about him and his Democratic rival.”

He didn’t mention that the “health questions” had been raised the day before by one of his own surrogates, John Roosevelt, or that President Eisenhower had that very day refused to play Nixon’s game.

After the speech in Oakland, Herb Klein, Nixon’s press secretary, told reporters that Nixon would make his records available “if it is agreeable to Senator Kennedy.”

The Times also reported that Klein “suggested that the information be made public at 10 a.m. Monday, and said Mr. Nixon’s doctors had been instructed to have the vice president’s records ready for release then.”

Of course, “Mr. Nixon’s doctors” would not include Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker. Nixon was still trying to keep that a secret.

TV and radio stations around the country reported on Nixon’s challenge that the candidates’ medical records be made public the next Monday, the very last day before voters would go to the polls.

So there it was. Nixon had made his move, and now it was time for the Kennedy camp to make its.

That same night, Arnold Hutschnecker and his wife Florita were watching an old black-and-white movie on TV at their vacation home in Connecticut when the phone rang. It was 9:30 pm.

Dr. Hutschnecker answered the phone. “Hello?” he said.

“This is the Associated Press,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “Dr. Hutschnecker, did you by any chance hear the announcement that on Monday there will be a statement about the health and fitness for office of the two presidential candidates?”

 “Yes,” Hutschnecker replied. “I heard it on the radio, on the two o’clock news.”

“We have been informed,” continued the reporter, “that you are Vice President Nixon’s doctor, and we would like a statement from you about his health.”

Hutschnecker was dumbfounded. He knew that none of his medical files on Nixon were going to be made public on Monday, and he couldn’t imagine how anyone could have connected him to the vice president, tracked him down in Sherman, Ct., and then called him on his unlisted, private phone number.

He knew, of course, about the rumors that had been going on for years that Nixon was seeing a “shrink.” Five years earlier, legendary columnist and famed Nixon-hater Walter Winchell reported that Nixon was seeing a psychiatrist. But Winchell hadn’t learned the doctor’s name, and no reporters had ever connected the dots — until now.

Of course, there had been one other inquiry — not to Dr. Hutschnecker but to Nixon’s friend, Nora de Toledano, back in September when Guenther Reinhardt had called and asked about Nixon and Hutschnecker. Nixon had been in the hospital, laid up with his bad knee, but his secretaries had gotten word to him when Nora called to alert him. And while there is no record of whether Nixon ever told Hutschnecker about the private detective’s inquires, it’s hard to imagine that Nixon wouldn’t have warned the doctor that someone had discovered his most politically damaging secret.

Either way, it’s clear that Hutschnecker didn’t make the connection between the questions this “reporter” was asking him and the consultation he’d had in September with a private investigator looking for a psychosomatic specialist.

“You can’t be serious,” Hutschnecker told the reporter huffily. “In the entire United States there isn’t one physician who would give a shred of information about a patient, much less to a stranger over the phone who might be anybody.”

The reporter, who indeed might have been anybody, continued to ask questions. He even asked Dr. Hutschnecker who he was going to vote for on Tuesday. Finally, getting no information out of the doctor, the reporter asked: “Could you just say yes or no if I ask you this simple question? Is Mr. Nixon in good health?”

Hutschnecker hesitated for a moment, but stood his ground and refused to confirm or deny that Nixon was one of his patients — a decision that would haunt him.

Many years later, Hutschnecker came to believe that if he had confirmed that Nixon was his patient and told the reporter that Nixon was in good health, that might have forced a showdown over the question of the candidates’ health, and tipped the election to Nixon.

“I pondered how this particular problem would be resolved long after I hung up,” he recalled. "After Election Day, considering the narrow margin by which President Kennedy won — 0.2 per- cent — I could not help but wonder how the election might have turned out had President Kennedy been obliged to give a statement of his Addison’s disease, had I given Mr. Nixon a clean bill of health.”

Hutschnecker wrote that Nixon had known Kennedy had Addison’s disease since 1954, and that Nixon’s advisors had urged him to use it against Kennedy in the 1960 election, but that Nixon had refused to do it.

“Nixon’s closest advisors urged him to make use of it,” Dr. Hutschnecker wrote. “Nixon refused, saying, ‘Anybody who can go through a presidential campaign is healthy enough to be president … Nixon’s sense of fair play may have cost him the election.”

But Dr. Hutschnecker, always giving his friend and most illustrious patient the benefit of the doubt, didn’t know when he wrote this that Nixon had already tried to make Kennedy’s Addison’s disease an issue during the final desperate days of the campaign. He also didn’t know that it was not Nixon’s sense of “fair play” that held him back from bringing up Kennedy’s disease, but the fear, and perhaps even the certain knowledge that if he did, the Kennedy camp would retaliate by making public the fact that Nixon had been seeing a “shrink.”

Even though he later thought that by answering the reporter’s question he might have helped Nixon win the election — and Dr. Hutschnecker wanted him to win — he knew that in good conscience he could not interfere with the election that way.

But Hutschnecker also didn’t understand that the phone call he’d received that night from the reporter had not been made to gather information, but to convey it — to let Nixon know that the Kennedy camp would reveal his secret if Nixon and his henchmen insisted on making Jack’s health a last-minute campaign issue.

Whether the call had come from a real reporter or not, someone had tipped him off that Hutschnecker was Nixon’s doctor. Not surprisingly, no story moved on the AP wire the next day about Nixon being a patient of Dr. Hutschnecker’s; it would be another eight years before that story would be uncovered by a real reporter — muckraking columnist Drew Pearson.

The call from the “reporter” that night to Dr. Hutschnecker on his unlisted phone number at his vacation home in Connecticut did the trick. Nixon shut up about Jack’s health, and, as Hutschnecker noted, “The anticipated statement on the health issue of both candidates did not take place on Monday, and it did not become an election issue.”

From "The Gumshoe and the Shrink," the secret history of the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election (Santa Monica Press)