“‘Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.”
—William Shakespeare

“Just the facts, ma’am.” Joe Friday’s prescription for getting at the truth has been followed by Seymour Hersh, whose investigation of the secret life of John F. Kennedy, America’s “prince of the people,” is peppered with facts as recalled by those—many of them on their death beds or close to it—who guarded the secrets while spinning up the image of Camelot.

The facts, indeed, are devastating. But then, they are also there for the telling. Had the guardians of these secrets—in particular the big-name journalists of the era who glorified in being pals with JFK—put the national interest ahead of personal loyalty, the seamy side of Camelot would have been exposed in time and American history from the darkest period of the Cold War might have taken a different turn, perhaps for the better—or so Hersh argues.

More than three decades after his assassination, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s reputation continues to preserve its saintly luster, resisting the tarnish of time and truth. Those of us alive in 1963 will carry to our graves the shock of a young President cut down as he rode through the streets of Dallas by the senseless act of a lone gunman perched in a schoolbook warehouse. Never mind that the autopsy, with its finding that the President had been suffering from a long-running case of venereal disease, was sealed, or that incriminating records and logs were removed from the White House and presumably destroyed. In his moment of death, John F. Kennedy became the symbol of a new generation of Americans denied, by violence, its place at the table; he has haunted the national psyche ever since.

Being a practical, God-fearing people, Americans naturally wanted to know why this horror had visited them. When the answers began coming in—that the assassination was the work of a nobody intent on impressing someone, most likely his estranged Russian-born wife—practical God-fearing Americans did something entirely unpractical: they suspended their belief in reality. And so for the first couple of decades following the assassination, they pursued hundreds of conspiracy theories all the way to their inevitable dead ends: Johnson did it, Castro did it, the mob did it. Eventually, the facts got in the way. While no credible person has ever come forward to claim credit for the conspiracy, plenty of those who had a piece of the combination to the secret chamber at least made a start at telling what they knew, while attempting to present their stories in such a way as to maintain intact the myth of a wealthy but socially shunned family descendants of Irish immigrants—attaining the pinnacle of American power to assume the role of protectors of all the downtrodden. Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published books intended to confirm the greatness of the man on whose behalf they had labored; aides Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers (skipping a few details such as the procurement of the presidential bimbos) penned a loving tribute to the late President; and soon everyone who had been anyone in the New Frontier was dropping a detail here, a detail there, usually for reasons that one can only assume were ultimately self-serving.

As serious historians compared these notes and accounts, however, an altogether different picture of John Kennedy began to emerge: that of a wife-cheating playboy with a sexual addiction above the heroin level; a President who cavalierly disregarded the checks and balances of constitutional government in order to have his way, even if that way almost started a nuclear war; a man who made pacts with the devil (mobster Sam Giancana), while bopping his girlfriend; the scion of a clan so infatuated with their purchased position as America’s single-family aristocracy that they would go to the bunker to protect it. Still, if the portrait no longer flattered, the myth at least was secure. As recently as the early 1990’s, two books-JFK: Reckless Youth by British biographer Nigel Hamilton and President Kennedy: Profile of Power by Richard Reeves-presented the 35th President, warts and all, in ways that left Jack Kennedy an heroic figure nonetheless.

Seymour Hersh gives the lion’s share of the credit for having opened the vault to these two works and to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and to Michael R. Beschloss’s The Crisis Years. He recognizes others as well in source notes (but, alas, not in a bibliography, which is missing from the book). Clearly, however, the treasure trove mined by Hersh are the interviews he conducted with insiders—some well known, others shadowy figures—associated with the New Frontier, or with their heirs. Interviews, of course, are a most valuable way of checking one story against others, and Hersh uses them skillfully to establish not only Kennedy’s sexual romps (including one with a suspected East German spy) but Joe Sr.’s iron control over the career of his secondborn son; Jack (and Bobby’s) tendency to go it alone, often impetuously, on issues of national security; Jack’s secret (and short-lived) marriage to Durie Malcolm; Sam Giancana’s involvement in stealing the 1960 election for Kennedy; even the long-forgotten TFX scandal, in which Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suddenly shifted gears and awarded a lucrative contract for the construction of fighter aircraft to the hopelessly incompetent General Dynamics over the Pentagon-preferred Boeing Co. (Did a break-in, viewed by FBI agents conducting their own surveillance, at presidential mistress Judith Exner’s home expose the administration to blackmail on the TFX issue? No one knows.) These revelations, and many others, deliver a stunning and embarrassing depiction of American government suspended above the abyss.

Sy Hersh, a muckraking journalist and darling of the left for his investigative reporting on the massacre at My Lai, on any number of government abuses, and on the downing of a Korean jumbo jet by the Soviets in the 1980’s, has not been pleasing the usual suspects by popping the golden bubble surrounding Camelot. Garry Wills, writing in the New York Review of Books, calls it a second assassination; others have been less generous. The response was predictable, given the amount of love Americans have poured out on a man who remained almost entirely unknown before—his popularity sinking and his reelection in jeopardy—he was elevated to martyrdom. History is slow to unlock its secrets; nevertheless, these usually will out.

What I find missing from The Dark Side of Camelot is perspective. What does this all mean? Since it is fairly well established that both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations used mob sources in an attempt to kill Fidel Gastro, should not the country have mounted a criminal investigation to determine the full extent of culpability and bring those responsible to justice? As Hersh notes,

[Robert] Mahue believes today that the Kennedy administration was criminally responsible in permitting the Cuban exiles to land at the Bay of Pigs without the support necessary for survival. “When we called off the [second] air raid and the adequate air cover, we inherited the responsibility of calling off the invasion,” he told me. “We could not allow those kids to hit those beaches and be destroyed by hardware that should have been destroyed by us hours before. And as far as I’m concerned, we thereby indulged in mass murder.”

Mahue was the former FBI agent who served as the go-between in the American government’s efforts to enlist the mob in eliminating Fidel Castro. Missing from his concern for lives lost on a beach in Cuba—a betrayal he came to consider criminally irresponsible —is any hint of irony regarding the decision to deal with criminals in the first place. Many of those who were “just doing their jobs” lived for many years after leaving the service of the administration; some are still alive today. Is there a statute of limitations on treason? Or procurement? Dave Powers, had he been acting for anyone other than the President of the United States, would surely have served jail time on a vice rap, especially since the director of the FBI (we know, thanks to Freedom of Information Act releases) and the President’s own Secret Service detail (ditto, thanks to their frank interviews with Hersh) have established beyond the possibility of a doubt that his activities, and the security breaches they caused, were familiar to many at the time they occurred. And what about campaign finance violations? Hersh cites one case after another in which bundles of cash were thrown about—including during the West Virginia primary in 1960—by the man who is now the senior senator from Massachusetts. What, finally, about the national interest? Hersh tells of a Secret Service agent who “had the unceremonious chore of bringing sexually explicit photographs of a naked president with various paramours to the Mickelson Gallery, one of Washington’s most distinguished art galleries, for framing.” In another of his interviews, he gets confirmation of the story from Sidney Mickelson, who ran the gallery. Left hanging for the reader is the question of what happened to these photographs. Were they destroyed, and if so by whom? Did the FBI, which seemed to know more about JFK than JFK himself, ever see them? Did they become part of Hoover’s blackmailing of the President? Did JFK send copies to the participants, much as other politicians send pictures of themselves greeting Mr. Megabucks in the hope that the contribution channel will remain open?

All of these stories feature some form of criminal conduct, not to mention a great deal of stupidity. Yet out of the morass came only broad limitations regarding assassinations of foreign leaders and wiretapping and a gaggle of restrictions placed on both the FBI and the CIA, largely as a result of Watergate. Few people entered the criminal dock as a result of having carried water for Kennedy or members of his family, and those who did were usually victims themselves of a double-cross. No American official was ever indicted on war crimes charges despite a plethora of evidence of criminal intent to initiate and escalate the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War; and today Washington maintains its stranglehold on Cuba by a draconian embargo that owes its longevity to the fact that the Kennedy brothers not only got their noses rubbed in the dirt by Castro but failed in their attempts to kill him off as well. No one did time—including Frank Sinatra, who served as middleman in establishing the link between the Kennedys and the mob for the theft of the 1960 election. Money, the mother’s milk of politics, still flows, with JFK’s Arkansas lookalike boldly insisting that cash passed under the table from Asian interests constitutes no violation of the laws. More importantly though—and I think this is the critical point that Americans refuse to face today —is the fact that, since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the office has failed to reform itself Instead, it has become more imperial and arrogant, its occupants more trapped in a bunker of their own construction. And we are the worse as a nation for it.

At least the failure has been bipartisan. Under the elected kings (and one appointed one) who succeeded John F. Kennedy, we have endured the continued quagmire of Vietnam (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon); Watergate and the use of unsavory characters to spy on and disrupt domestic activities (Nixon); the Mayaguez incident (Gerald Ford); the taking of U.S. diplomats as hostages by the Iranians and the disaster resulting from the attempt to rescue them (Jimmy Carter); the selling of arms to terrorists to finance counterrevolutionary activities (Ronald Reagan); and the overthrow of the Panamanian government and the mass slaughter of Iraqi civilians (George Bush). In other words, all Presidents since Kennedy have felt emboldened in some way or another to emulate him by initiating risky and legally dubious operations in the name of national security, bypassing in the process the checks and balances of the Constitution. Nixon got caught, and bounced. Reagan came close to paying dearly for Iran-Contra. George Bush, the only President who took his military adventure (against Iraq) to Congress, bought it at the polls, in part because he failed to finish the job.

Yet the White House, as an institution, is more secure than ever. No one gets far by proposing a single presidential term; no one seriously considers adopting a parliamentary system, in which the President would be the leader of the congressional majority. No one in Congress seriously proposes drastic reductions in the White House budget, or refusals to pay for what already is budgeted, as in the case of the United Nations. The press, which continues sheepishly to explain that, as recently as the Kennedy administration, you simply did not report certain things, now gives us tittle-tattle at every chance. Gary Hart, a bright young man with an attitude, seems to have been the only victim.

And then, of course, came Bubba. Liberals fell over themselves proclaiming young Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas the new JFK when it became clear that he was going to capture the Democratic nomination in 1992; their task was made considerably easier when Clinton, at the convention, produced a newsreel from the 1960’s showing him shaking hands with the martyr himself How on the mark those people were! Clinton’s morals are possibly indictable, his policies are suspect, and he has put Americans at risk for even more vacuous reasons than most of his predecessors were willing to accept. He sent American troops to occupy Haiti and restore a democracy that had never existed (and still doesn’t); he introduced Iranian (yes, Iranian) arms into the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and, once he had tipped the military balance, sent American troops there to establish what may well become a never-ending presence in the Balkans. All this, moreover, before the time of his reelection! Clinton, with his finger on the greatest nuclear arsenal ever assembled, pushes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eastward toward the highly unstable components of the former Soviet Union, thus threatening a new arms race.

Journalists of the stature of Roger Morris and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard have written books exposing Clinton’s sins to little effect, though no one, to judge from conversation down at the local barbershop, trusts him for a minute, especially if their daughters happen to be around. His shadowy connection with the CIA and drug-runners has been probed by Morris, Evans-Pritchard, and Alexander Cockburn to no avail, while his best friend and former enforcer at the Justice Department has served jail time and is suspected of receiving hush money. So how much book do we want on a President? Not much, apparently, while he is still in office. Which raises the intriguing question: If we had known about JFK then what we know about JFK now, would we have elected him President in I960? Re-elected him in 1964? That is difficult to say. While Bill Clinton’s rebound in the polls in the wake of the breaking Lewinsky scandal may suggest the likely answer, it is more likely that public indifference is simply the measure of the moral decline of the American people in the second half of the 20th century.

John F. Kennedy’s multiple indiscretions were appalling, no doubt. On policy matters, however, he was only following through with a program for concentrated power centered in the White House and subject to little or no oversight that was begun by Franklin Roosevelt and further promoted by presidents Truman and Eisenhower. On moral matters, look up Warren G. Harding. Kennedy alone must have felt that he was up to the job. The legions recruited to build the legend while keeping their lips sealed were released from all obligation on November 22, 1963, and they have been building the record, in fits and starts, ever since. It is we as a people who have not acted upon that record. Perhaps we never will.


[The Dark Side of Camelot, by Seymour M. Hersh (New York: Little, Brown & Company) 498 pages; $26.95]