Hersh's Dark Camelot

December 28, 1997

by Edward Jay Epstein

In his new book, "The Dark Side of Camelot," Seymour M. Hersh, a prize-winning investigative reporter, attempts to radically revise the history of John F. Kennedy. Soon after an assassin's bullets cut short the JFK presidency, books by his former aides and speech writers, notably "A Thousand Days" by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and "Kennedy" by Theodore Sorenson, painted a glowing picture of the young president as a heroic and honorable man, dedicated to advancing the interests of America, aided in this quest by the best and brightest men and women in the realm and who, in his finest moment, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, courageously confronted and faced down the Soviet foe. In the variations on this theme that followed in the media, including movies, miniseries and profiles in glossy magazines, the Kennedy White House became a veritable Camelot on the Potomac.

Hersh sets out to remedy this unfortunate over-romanticization and help, as he puts it, "the nation reclaim some of its history." In its place, he substitutes a far more sinister vision, depicting Kennedy as a sex maniac, marital cheat, bigamist, speed freak, liar and corrupt politician who employed in his covert service Mafia chiefs, panderers, Communist spies and political fixers and engaged in stealing national elections, shaking down corporations for contributions, plotting assassinations and, in the very same Cuban missile crisis, secretly caving in to Soviet conditions. What is such a radical revision based on? Hersh claims his evidence is both new and substantiated. But, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, much of what can be substantiated in this book is not new, and much of what is new, including his most sensational findings, cannot be substantiated.

Hersh is right that the initial books on Kennedy did omit potentially relevant information concerning his health problems, personal relationships and the involvement with covert actions. Much of this information was simply not available then; the Freedom of Information Act had not yet been passed. But history did not stop with the publication of Schlesinger's and Sorenson's biographies in the mid-1960s. More than 1,000 books about the Kennedy family followed, creating a mini-industry. And many of these books, especially those published after the release of the report of the Senate Select Committee on Assassinations in 1975, contain essentially the same factual material about the covert side of the Kennedy administration as is found in Hersh's book. For example, six of the eight major "secrets" Hersh cites in his opening chapter--Kennedy's undisclosed health problems, the secret negotiations during the Cuban missile crisis, the administration's plots to remove Fidel Castro, h! is extramarital affairs, campaign finance diversions and the taping system in the White House--can all be found, often in greater detail, clarity and perspective, in Richard Reeves' 1993 biography, "President Kennedy: Profile of Power."

What Hersh adds are his idiosyncratic interpretations. He assumes Kennedy's actions proceeded not from conventional political considerations such as winning elections or advancing his programs but from his personal vulnerability to blackmail. In the case of the selection of Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate in 1960, for example, Hersh assumes JFK's motive was not political expediency, the most plausible motive since LBJ helped him win the election by carrying Texas, but that he must have been blackmailed into the choice. Then Hersh speculates on what dark secret could possibly lie behind the assumed blackmail. Seeking to prove this thesis, he is able to give a new interpretation to the previously established facts.

To be sure, in his aggressive search for the dark secrets to explain JFK's vulnerability to the putative blackmail, Hersh did develop new material bearing on JFK's alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe, JFK's alleged bigamy, JFK's alleged assassination discussions with a Mafia chief and Robert F. Kennedy's deliberate obstruction of justice in hiding evidence of some of the above on the day JFK was assassinated. The problem: its provenance.

In the case of JFK's rumored liaison with Monroe, Hersh's investigation turned up a secret archive of correspondence between JFK and an otherwise unknown New York lawyer that included, among other sensational documents, a letter from JFK to Monroe acknowledging that they had an extramarital affair and offering to set up a trust fund for her mother in exchange for her public silence about it. Just before publication of "The Dark Side of Camelot," this archive, which contained a number of obvious anachronisms, such as ZIP Codes before they existed, was determined by a television network to be a forgery. To his credit, Hersh excluded that fraudulent documentation from his book. But without it, the conclusions he drew about a sexual relationship between JFK and Monroe had no basis except for unsubstantiated celebrity rumors. Hersh's other discoveries all involve recovering snatches of lost memories from distant or defective witnesses, a questionable technique of reporting that h! e pushes to the limit of credibility. Consider, for example, Hersh's finding that JFK was a bigamist. The rumor began circulating in the extreme right-wing press in 1961 that in 1947, JFK, then a congressman, had secretly married Durie Malcolm, a Palm Beach socialite. Both JFK and Malcolm denied the story, and when it persisted, JFK asked Ben Bradlee, then at Newsweek, to investigate it. Bradlee determined it was a false story emanating from an error in a flawed book of genealogy (which even spelled Malcolm's name incorrectly). Some 35 years later, Hersh resurrected the story, not on the basis of any witness or document to the alleged marriage but on the basis of a piece of conversation that he managed to elicit from a 79-year-old Palm Beach resident, Charles Spalding. Spalding, who, though interviewed many times before over 50 years, never before claimed a role, now told Hersh that he knew about the supposed first marriage because he had himself eliminated the record of it ! at the Palm Beach County Courthouse, saying, according to Hersh! , "I went out there and removed the papers." Presumably, in previous interviews after JFK's death, he had not remembered this extraordinary (and criminal) act.

But how reliable is Spalding's new 1997 memory of this incident that supposedly happened in 1947? Before Hersh interviewed him, Spalding had problems with his ability to recall routine information, which Hersh generously describes as an "impairment of his short-term memory." Such a deficiency notwithstanding, this piece of recovered memory about JFK stands or falls on a simple test. If the 1947 marriage registry in Palm Beach County, which was then handwritten and bound, was marred or missing a page, Spalding's story could be valid. If on the other hand the registry was intact and the entries consecutive, Spalding's memory of removing the papers could not be any more valid than the forged archive of Monroe letters. As it turned out, Hersh and his investigators were unable to find any such gap in the marriage records nor, for that matter, any record of a marriage application, which had to be made three days before the ceremony. Nevertheless, on this piece of recovered memory ! from a person who Hersh knew suffered memory lapses and whose recollection was impeached by an investigation of the records, he asserts in "The Dark Side of Camelot," as established fact, that both JFK and his brother Robert "had lied in their denials to newspapermen and the public about Jack Kennedy's long-rumored first marriage to a Palm Beach socialite," that JFK's marriage to Jackie was not a legal union and that his children were born out of wedlock.

Hersh's second new finding, that Sam Giancana, a notorious Chicago Mafia chief, conspired with JFK to fix elections and arrange the assassination of Castro, was based on a similar device of eliciting new data from old witnesses. In 1961, Judith Campbell Exner, a former actress, "dated" both JFK and Giancana. This extraordinary coincidence was first publicly revealed in 1975 in a footnote in the Senate Select Committee on Assassinations report and became a sensational story. The issue: Did JFK have any connection to Giancana (other than a relationship with the same woman)? Exner was interrogated by the staff of the Senate committee and testified under oath that she had no knowledge of any relationship between JFK and Giancana. Afterward, she did not remain silent: She wrote her own book, "My Story," and gave countless interviews to journalists, often changing elements of her story. (A 1988 interview of her in People magazine by Kitty Kelley, "The Dark Side of Camelot," adumbr! ated Hersh's title.) Hersh expanded Exner's story much further: Instead of "not knowing of any relationship," with Hersh's help Exner remembered that she had served as a courier between JFK and Giancana, transmitting messages, documents and cash concerning assassination, corruption and election fixing and attended a secret meeting between these men at which such matters were discussed.

Hersh recognizes that Exner is not a consistent truth-teller: Either she lied under oath to the Senate about not knowing of any such relationship, in which case she committed perjury, or she lied to him 20 years later when she vividly described such a relationship. In the former case, there is a possible penalty for lying, years of imprisonment; in the latter case, there is no penalty for lying to a journalist but a possible profit and extended celebrity. In either case, her veracity was in question. Nevertheless, Hersh chose to assume that she had perjured herself (and lied in her own autobiography and other journalistic accounts) but had been truthful and reliable with him, and on the basis of her newly recovered memory, he transmogrified Kennedy into a Mafia co-conspirator.

Hersh's third and most extraordinary new finding is the cover-up that occupied the mind of Robert Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day his brother was killed. Hersh's first chapter, "November 22," is indeed a report of Robert Kennedy's inner thinking. He asserts, for example, that "Bobby Kennedy understood that revelation of the material in his brother's White House files would forever destroy Jack Kennedy's reputation as President" and that "[a]s Bobby Kennedy knew, President Kennedy and Sam Giancana shared . . . a stolen election and assassination plotting" and "Bobby Kennedy knew . . . that Jack Kennedy had been living a public lie." In this frantic state of mind, he reports, Robert Kennedy immediately engaged in a frantic cover-up of these and other dark secrets.

But how, even with his legendary investigative skills, did Hersh manage to recover these new memories from Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968? Hersh did not interview Robert Kennedy before his death, and Hersh does not list any source for these interior thoughts in his documentation. Nor could he have gotten it from Kennedy's own writings, since they don't contain them or even make reference to such matters. Hersh must have invented these facts.

Such license may serve to expand the universe of creative journalism, but it unfortunately does not produce credible history. When the pretensions of "helping the nation reclaim some of its history" fade away on scrutiny, this book turns out to be, alas, more about the deficiencies of investigative journalism than about the deficiencies of John F. Kennedy.

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