Hersh's Harsh Look at JFK

The book's impact hinges on the credibility one gives its sources


By Seymour M. Hersh

Little, Brown & Co.

498 pp., $24.65

Seymour Hersh's latest investigative book, "The Dark Side of Camelot," is not for the squeamish. It wallows in the muck of the sexual improprieties, political corruption, and coverup that appear to have permeated the career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Very little is left to the imagination.

The book raises disturbing but significant questions about what constitutes proper personal and political behavior on the part of the nation's leaders.

It also serves as a rebuke to the press of that day, which frequently ignored or did not follow up on allegations about Kennedy's behavior. And it further throws down the gauntlet for today's reporters and historians to fully investigate the evidence and assertions Hersh brings to light.

The book has been surrounded in controversy for several reasons. Many who cherish the Camelot myth of the Kennedy years resent the tarring of their hero. The book makes many of Kennedy's closet associates - the "best and the brightest," respected men like Theodore Sorenson, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and others - appear to be sycophants.

The book is also bound up in the story of a dossier of papers purportedly located in a New York lawyer's office that appeared to show that the Kennedys signed a contract to pay hush money to actress Marilyn Monroe.

Hersh excised that part of the story from his book when, after several years of cultivating the documents' owners, he and ABC News determined them to be forgeries. The owner recently filed a libel suit against Hersh, ABC, and several news organizations who reported on the forgery allegations.

Hersh's volume contains many sensational assertions about Kennedy that are not new information. It's been well documented, sadly, that Kennedy was an inveterate womanizer. Many people in a position to know say he had affairs with White House secretaries, Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner, and many others.

Hersh's book claims to present new evidence for charges that Kennedy bought the 1960 West Virginia primary, stole the 1960 election with help from the Chicago mob, and actively participated in plots to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro as part of the Bay of Pigs invasion and after, thus provoking the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Hersh is not making all this up. Many of the allegations have been around for years. What's new is that Hersh has found sources who have told him the whys and wherefores, thus apparently documenting the charges. In other cases, he has found documents, some from the Kennedy Library in Boston, others newly released from FBI and CIA files under the Freedom of Information Act.

The crux of the problem for readers: Can we believe Hersh's sources? The answer seems to be mixed. Certainly there are those close enough to know who are telling the truth. Others are telling what they believe to be the truth, but may not have been in a position to know for sure. Others are hearsay witnesses or clearly have axes to grind. And some, like Judith Exner, who claims that she carried payments from Kennedy to Windy City mobster Sam Giancana, have changed their stories in the past, so their credibility may be questioned.

To adequately evaluate the various charges, one would have to study Kennedy's life and read stacks of previously published material. Assume for a minute, however, that all the allegations about Kennedy are true. There is still the question of the conclusions Hersh draws from them. He says it up front: "Kennedy's private life and personal obsessions - his character - affected the affairs of the nation and its foreign policy far more than has ever been known."

Perhaps so. But that doesn't mean that the Cuban missile crisis occurred only because Kennedy unnecessarily provoked it with murder plots against Castro. Certainly the Soviets had plenty of other motives for placing intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads in the Caribbean.

Former Attorney General Robert Kennedy comes off as badly as JFK. Hersh has him lying, covering up, slandering, plotting, doing whatever it takes to get his brother elected, keep him in office, and succeed him in 1968. Family patriarch Joseph Kennedy is portrayed as having connections to the mob and as a blackmailer.

The result is a one-dimensional picture of the slain president, his family, and his associates. While there's no disputing much of the unpleasantness, there was far more to JFK than womanizing and obsession with Castro. Hersh may well be right that Kennedy was so threatened by incipient scandal that he would never have been reelected in 1964. That, as those of us who remember Nov. 22, 1963 know all too well, is an exercise in pure speculation.

But Hersh has performed an important service in one regard. He found absolutely no evidence to dispute the Warren Commission conclusion that JKF's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, or Oswald's murderer, Jack Ruby, each acted alone.

* Lawrence J. Goodrich is the Monitor's congressional correspondent.

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