SEYMOUR M. HERSH, The Dark Side of Camelot (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), 498 pp., $26.95 cloth (ISBN 0-3160-35955-6).
Few leaders better symbolize the tension between public image and private reality than John F. Kennedy does. Scholars, journalists, and artists of various genres have energetically debated the character of Kennedy's presidency and of the man himself. Around the thirty-fifth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, these two recent studies add new voices to the cacophony of Kennedy analysis. Whereas Seymour Hersh's book offers an unremittingly critical "revisionist" critique of Kennedy, the man and the president, John Hellmann's account affirms Kennedy's status as a romantic American hero, worthy of adulation and praise.
Hersh, a journalist, aims to show that the myth of "Camelot"--the mystique of Kennedy wealth, power, and beauty manufactured during and after his presidency--was belied by a sordid truth. Far from being the devoted family man and principled leader depicted in the American media, Kennedy was a womanizer who regularly and conspicuously bedded dozens of females (among them numerous prostitutes, several Hollywood starlets, and a potential East German spy); a crooked politician whose family money and ties to organized crime secured him a narrow election victory in 1960; a drug addict, hooked on painkillers for his Addison's and venereal diseases; a possible bigamist, who secretly married in 1947 but apparently obtained no divorce before marrying Jacqueline Bouvier in 1954; an obsessive-compulsive, so driven by his personal hatred of Fidel Castro that he repeatedly risked world conflict, even nuclear war, to eliminate that perceived Cuban menace; a liar, who exhorted toughness with the Soviets but pursued back-channel negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, culminating in the secret pullout of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for Soviet withdrawal from Cuba in mid-1962; a poor crisis manager, whose reckless policies toward Cuba in 1961-62 invited the missile imbroglio; and an arrogant imperialist, who directly approved the assassinations of leaders in other trouble spots around the world, namely, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam. Extensive treatment of Kennedy's sexual promiscuity and unsavory political connections lends a tabloid quality to the book, but the study has relevance that transcends mere sensationalism. "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" (p. ix), Hersh asserts. Kennedy's personal recklessness imperiled U.S. national security by repeatedly making the president vulnerable to extortion by American corporations, foreign governments, the Mafia, and more. Hersh claims that Kennedy was blackmailed in 1960 by Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover, who used damaging evidence of Kennedy's extramarital affairs to force the appointment of Hoover crony Lyndon B. Johnson, senator from Texas, as Kennedy's running mate. The defense giant General Dynamics also might have used illegally acquired evidence of Kennedy's affair with Mafia conduit Judith Campbell Exner to secure a contract for production of the inferior TFX jet fighter in late 1962.