Why you should care
Because mutually assured destruction can be a potent political tactic.
With just days left until what would be the closest presidential election in U.S. history, Richard Nixon, a seasoned poker player and one of the dirtiest political campaigners ever, was preparing to play his trump card. Throughout his 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy and his team had labored to conceal Kennedy’s full medical profile, especially the fact that the Massachusetts senator had Addison’s disease and, without regular cortisone injections, could die from the lethal adrenal insufficiency.
But as Vice President Nixon, armed with detailed knowledge of Kennedy’s condition, sat ready to spring the issue in the run-up to the election, something in Kennedy’s hand made Nixon fold. It was Nixon’s very own checkered medical file, including the fact that he had been seeing a psychotherapist for years. Nixon’s secret shrink, like his deep paranoia, did not become public knowledge until years later, but the discovery of that fact — made by an unscrupulous private detective in the waning days of the campaign — may have been enough to influence the course of the 1960 election … and American history.
On the afternoon of Sept. 7, 1960 — two months before the election — a short German man with slicked-back hair named Guenther Reinhardt appeared at the Park Avenue offices of Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker in Manhattan. As David L. Robb chronicles in The Gumshoe and the Shrink, Reinhardt — a journalist turned private investigator who had covered Hitler’s 1924 treason trial and spied on J. Edgar Hoover’s personal enemies for the FBI — was no stranger to making history. He was also perennially broke, ethically flexible and, in Robb’s words, “a manic-depressive knight-errant in search of adventure and a fast buck.”
Nixon was perhaps the most fascinating — and repressed — patient he had ever met.
Reinhardt’s nose for the story had led him to Dr. Hutschnecker’s door, where — pretending to seek out the illustrious psychotherapist on behalf of a fictional politician in need of a discreet doctor — Reinhardt hoped to confirm the identity of the therapist’s most famous patient. Later, in his confidential report on the investigation, Reinhardt claims his ruse successfully duped Hutschnecker into admitting he was treating the “No. 2 man” in the government and, while the doctor stepped out, the PI also likely snatched a glimpse at Nixon’s file.
Through that visit and his surrounding investigation, Reinhardt learned that the doctor had been seeing Nixon for almost a decade. Hutschnecker, a Jewish refugee from Germany like Reinhardt, was an expert in psychosomatic medicine who had done pioneering work on the role of anxiety in physical ailments. It was that expertise and his landmark book, The Will to Live, that brought Sen. Nixon to his door in the early 1950s. Ridden with stress, insomnia and back pain, Nixon had been pushed to the breaking point by his grueling work schedule. A devoted Democrat, Hutschnecker was hesitant to treat such a prominent Republican, but he was fascinated by politicians, and Nixon was perhaps the most fascinating — and repressed — patient he had ever met. As Hutschnecker later observed, Nixon, the emotionally deprived child of a short-tempered father and unaffectionate Quaker mother, was “filled with unknown hungers and conflicts within himself.”
Nixon met with Hutschnecker over a period of years, including treatments (called “working breakfasts”) at the White House and elsewhere. And Nixon, being Nixon, used the sessions both for personal renewal and political gain, priming the doctor to focus his trained eye on “the psychology of other leaders,” including his 1960 rival, JFK, whom Hutschnecker diagnosed as a man with a “constant need” to prove himself to “a power-hungry, ruthlessly determined and overly aggressive father.”
That father, of course, also played a key role in his son’s election, and Joe Kennedy knew that Nixon, like Lyndon Johnson in the primaries, would use JFK’s medical condition against him if given the chance. So not only did Jack Kennedy deny having Addison’s disease, persuading his doctor to do the same, but Joe Kennedy took the added precaution of having Reinhardt verify the rumors about Nixon seeing a therapist. And when he received Reinhardt’s report, Joe Kennedy undoubtedly saw he had what was needed should Nixon raise the health issue.
Reinhardt made it known to the Nixon camp in early September that he knew Nixon had a psychotherapist. Even so, with five days remaining in the campaign, a desperate Nixon, trailing in the polls, took a chance that it was just a bluff, edging the campaign toward what Robb labels “the brink of all-out medical war.” Nixon got ally John Roosevelt (FDR’s youngest son) to issue a public challenge to flush out Kennedy, calling on both candidates to “disclose any medical difficulties that might impair their ability to serve as president.” Nixon’s team agreed, and prepared his (nonpsychiatric) records for release on the Monday before the Tuesday election.
Camp Kennedy made no response. But that weekend, while vacationing with his wife, Dr. Hutschnecker received a call from someone claiming to be an Associated Press reporter, asking if he planned to release his records for Nixon on Monday. Was the AP reporter Reinhardt or another Kennedy operative? No one knows for sure, but Nixon got the message and stood down. In the end, neither candidate’s medical records were released that Monday, the issue fizzled and Nixon lost the election by just 114,673 votes out of 68 million cast.
Why didn’t the Kennedys make Nixon’s psychiatric record public? Were they afraid it would draw attention to Jack’s condition, or raise questions about how they acquired the information? Or perhaps the threat had fulfilled its purpose. “[A]s Jack would learn during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” says Robb, “an atom bomb doesn’t have to be dropped to have a deterrent effect.”