Altered Statesmen; A New TV Series Reveals Some of the World's Greatest Leaders Have Been Dependent on Drink and Drugs at Key Moments in History. Jo Wiltshire Reports

Article excerpt


In the 1960 presidential campaign John F Kennedy went head to head with rival Richard Nixon in a series of debates on American television. On the new colour format, Kennedy looked bronzed, relaxed and healthy next to a pasty Nixon. He wowed the American public and went on to become president.

What no one realised was that his looks, which won him the nickname 'golden boy', were caused by high doses of a drug he was taking to hide a serious illness.

Kennedy had suffered for years from Addison's disease, a failure of the adrenal glands, organs vital to the body's defences. At times of great stress, his body was unable to fight back and he could have suffered sudden physical collapse, or even death. The only way he could cope with his weakness was to take daily doses of the steroid hydrocortisone, which boosted energy, masked his symptoms and gave him a tanned appearance. Unfortunately, the drug's other side effects were panic attacks, loss of judgment, anxiety and an increased libido. Sex was almost compulsive to him, and he suffered a heightened sense of risk-taking.

He was unable to regulate the amount of drugs he took, and the doses became larger and more frequent. Author Richard Reeves says: 'Kennedy was more promiscuous with drugs and pharmaceuticals than he ever was with women.'

This was a man who would, two years later, have to steer the world away from nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kennedy also suffered from a malformed spine, and did much of his daily work either in bed or in a hot bath. He was initially treated with injections of Novocaine, but it was later revealed that he was regularly administered doses of a cocktail he believed to be vitamins. In fact, he was being given amphetamines, which after high and prolonged doses can cause paranoid schizophrenia.

Nevertheless, he died a hero in 1968 and was mourned by a nation. It could all have been very different had he lived -?many felt he would have been unable to complete a second term in office, and his quest to live a normal life would have left him an invalid.

Kennedy was not the only great leader to suffer hidden health problems while leading his country. A revealing new Discovery Channel series, Altered Statesmen, reveals the shocking secrets of five of the 20th century's most powerful leaders - Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Boris Yeltsin, Ronald Reagan and Anthony Eden - all of whom were hampered by serious illness, debilitating depression or addictions to drugs and alcohol, and all of whom were involved in major crises that could have affected the entire world.

It is thought that Churchill suffered from cyclothymia, a chronic disorder consisting of short periods of mild depression followed by bursts of frenzied activity. He treated his mood swings with increasingly large doses of alcohol.

In 1940, he tried to make a speech to the House of Commons but became confused and had to be led away, prompting journalist Cecil King to comment: 'It's at times like these that age and excessive brandy drinking tell.' In 1951, starting his second term as prime minister, Churchill was determined to fulfil his role as a 'man of destiny', and end the Cold War. But he was already frail, and after suffering two major strokes he turned to the amphetamine Benzedrine to preserve his failing powers. He suffered depression after his retirement in 1955, unaware that the symptoms of his addictions to drink and drugs - stubbornness, flashes of narcissistic brilliance - may have been the very things that helped him to become a national hero.

Yeltsin, who became the first non-communist leader of Russia since the October Revolution in 1991, had a fondness for vodka that hid deeper, more life-threatening problems. …