The Dark Side of Camelot
By Seymour M. Hersh
Little, Brown & Co.; 498 pages; 26.95
It’s hard to remember a book that has benefited from as much bad publicity as Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot. A month before it was published, the New York Times ran a lengthy front-page account of how its author had fallen for a set of forged papers that supposedly detailed a $600,000 hush-money payment from the Kennedys to Marilyn Monroe. Subsequent stories in TheNew Yorker and Vanity Fair slammed Hersh for his gullibility in being seduced by these documents (which are not mentioned in his book). The Vanity Fair story, by rival investigative reporter Robert Sam Anson, flayed Hersh as a greedy journalistic thug who blackmails sources.
Since the book came out this week, the press has greeted Hersh’s examination of JFK’s sexual excess, his various connections to the mob, and other sometimes hyperbolic charges with exaggerated derision. Time tries to have it both ways with a cover this week that says, “DEBUNKING JFK: Seymour Hersh takes on Camelot, but how believable is his new book?” The inside story, like the one in Newsweek, attacks Hersh for repeating old hat charges, and for producing a farrago of implausible fantasies. On the Today show, Hersh endured a two-day grilling that seemed like payback for the time and money NBC had wasted on a documentary it abandoned because of suspicions about the forged papers. “Do you think you were blinded by the desire to tell a sordid tale?” was the kind of question Matt Lauer asked him. The most bitter critics are those whom one must hesitate, in light of current knowledge, to call the Kennedy Mafia. Former aides and acolytes like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen have lumped Hersh with Oliver Stone, taking the line that the book is paranoid speculation. Sorensen, whom Hersh portrays as a Kennedy toady, has been especially nasty in denouncing it as “a pathetic collection of wild stories.”
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to read The Dark Side of Camelot and find that it is not a trashy conspiracy screed at all. Investigative reporters are often difficult people, and Hersh, who is one of the best, sounds less pleasant than most. His book, however, is not merely a great read. Much of what’s in it is also 1) new; 2) shocking; 3) well supported; and 4) worth knowing.
The Kennedy flame keepers would have you believe that Hersh passes off malicious gossip as historical fact, Kitty Kelley-style. Hersh does hyperventilate from time to time, but he still manages to present his case in roughly the way a fair-minded historian or journalist should. He includes enough contrary evidence that readers can disagree with his conclusions without doing their own research elsewhere. Take one of his bombshells, the story of Kennedy’s secret first marriage. Hersh thinks Kennedy married a divorcee named Durie Malcolm in Palm Beach in 1947 and that the marriage lasted about 15 minutes. His chief witness is Charles Spalding, a close friend of JFK’s, who says he was asked to remove the wedding documents from a Palm Beach courthouse. Hersh acknowledges that Spalding, 79, suffers from short-term memory impairment, and that he couldn’t find family members or friends to confirm the story, which Malcolm indirectly denies. While he buys it himself, Hersh doesn’t portray his evidence as better than it really is.
T he same goes for his fascinating scoop about a break-in at Judith Exner’s Los Angeles apartment in August 1962. Exner, who was at various times the lover of Frank Sinatra, JFK, and the Chicago-based mobster Sam Giancana, was under heavy surveillance by the FBI because of her mob ties. According to FBI files obtained by Hersh, agents monitoring her home saw two men break in via the fire escape. Tracing the license plates, they determined that the burglars were the two sons of I.B. Hale, a former FBI special agent who was head of security for General Dynamics Corp. Hersh links this to the company’s pursuit–and otherwise inexplicable award, a few months later–of a contract to build a $6.5-billion jet fighter. He thinks General Dynamics blackmailed the president into giving it the contract. Once again, though, he readily admits that his evidence falls short of proof. “During the five years of research for this book, I tried unsuccessfully to find out how General Dynamics learned of Judith Exner’s ties to Jack Kennedy,” he writes. “I was unable to make contact with Billy or Bobby Hale despite repeated efforts.”
I won’t bore you again about the skinny-dipping parties, the prostitutes at the White House and on the road, JFK’s range of venereal diseases, his affair with a suspected East German spy, or his narrow escape from being drawn into the Profumo scandal. The approved journalistic technique is to retail all these prurient nuggets while appearing to hold your nose. The press treats these eye-popping revelations as if curiosity about them, rather than the deeds themselves, were something to be ashamed of. Even if true, the critics suggest, such information is not historically “relevant.” But it is obviously relevant to any real understanding of JFK. Hersh does not argue this point very well. In The Kennedy Imprisonment, Garry Wills did a much better job of connecting the family attitudes toward sexual conquest, the pursuit of power, and the conduct of foreign policy. But Hersh supplies the raw material that substantiates that case as never before.
The book has plenty of flaws. Of these, some of the most telling are failures to square minor inconsistencies. For instance, Hersh relates one anecdote about a Secret Service agent having to prevent the first lady from finding out for herself what she suspected was going on in the White House swimming pool. Later in the book, Hersh describes Jackie Kennedy’s strenuous efforts to avoid catching JFK in action. Another example is Hersh’s failure to harmonize his various stories of how Joe Kennedy Sr. helped steal the 1960 election for his son by paying off Giancana to help deliver the union vote in Chicago. When it comes to major foreign-policy events–the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam–Hersh is out of his depth. There is more to these episodes than his monochromatic tales of a president willing to take any risk, tell any falsehood, for the sake of political advantage.
Hersh is much better on the way in which the press protected Kennedy. Trusted reporters were at his beck and call, ready to advise on policy and bury indiscretions. In a 1960 letter Hersh found in the Kennedy Library, Ben Bradlee–then of Newsweek and later the editor of the Washington Post–advises Kennedy not to pick the unmannered rube LBJ as his running mate. Bradlee also helped out in 1962 when Kennedy needed to put rumors about his secret marriage to rest. In cases where a reporter wouldn’t play ball, Bobby Kennedy could easily pick up the phone and get editors to kill a story. Of course, the press no longer plays this role on behalf of the Kennedys or any other politicians. But something of the old dynamic may persist in the hostile reaction to Sy Hersh’s book.