on 16 January 1998
Myths die hard, particularly American myths. That the myth of "Camelot"--the good ol' days under the Kennedy Administration--persists even today, in our post-Watergate society, demonstrates not only our penchant for myth-making, but our intellectual blindness as well.
Veteren investigative reporter Seymour Hersh tackles this myth in his new and controversial book, THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT (Little, Brown and Company, 1997; 498 pages), an effectively researched and written summation of the Kennedy years. Beginning with the origins of the family's political clout, and following through until just after the assassination, Hersh weaves a Machiavellian tale of corruption, sex, backroom deals, and intrigues that would be difficult to believe were there not so much evidence to support it.
And this is where the controversy begins: just how much of this can we believe? In the wave of publicity before the book's publication, certain commentators essentially accused Hersh of becoming a sort of an out-of-the-closet Kitty Kelley, filling his narrative with unsupported allegations, speculations, and just plain hearsay. Others bashed Hersh for supposedly telling lurid stories of Kennedy's sexual conquests. In short, the general idea was that Hersh had betrayed his ideals as a reporter, shooting instead for the lowest common denominator and a high payday.
A reading of the book proves these accusations to be false. As far as sources are concerned, there are many and they are well documented (so well, in fact, that the footnoting becomes a nuisance). When a source has been self-contradictory (such as in the case of Judith Exner), Hersh is quick to point this out. When an allegation seems to be questionable at best, Hersh reminds his reader of this. And when there are details that are simply unknowable, Hersh states this matter-of-factly as well. In no instance in the book does Hersh allow a tabloid mentality to prevail. For the intelligent reader, this is enough.
As to the lurid sex tales, there are a few mentioned in passing. But these are in no way made to stand on their own for the sake of prurient interest. When Hersh interviews Secret Service agents and recounts their stories of the young President's numerous trysts, the point is not to rehash old (and, by now, tired) ground; rather, it is to show how his escapades made JFK vulnerable to physical harm and even blackmail. This, in turn, affected much of the way the Kennedy brothers ran the country. It is true that we've heard it all before about JFK and Marilyn; what Hersh makes clear is the gamble the man took with his office and, by extension, American lives. These insights alone make the book worth reading.
This is not to say that these issues have never been dealt with before in this way; they have. Indeed, one of the flaws of the book is that it portends to add much to our understanding of JFK's administration. There is new material, but, as a whole, there's nothing that can be considered to be a revelation. Hersh treats the Cuban Missile Crisis as if he alone knows the "true" story, but on balance, his account isn't much different from James Patterson's in GRAND EXPECTATIONS. CAMELOT works best as a synthesis of all we've learned about Kennedy in the last 20 years, with the new details adding some salt to the meat.
That the details are often entertaining is gratifying. I personally did not know that JFK was kept sitting bolt upright that day in Dallas by a stiff back-brace, and the CIA plot(s) to assassinate Castro made for often hilarious reading. Hersh's style flows quite smoothly if you can discount the often intrusive, windy footnotes (apparently included to ward off charges of poor sourcing).
In all, then, THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT is far from the expolitive mish-mash of half-baked rumors and backroom stories it has been made out to be. It is, rather, a riveting piece of history, against the myth certainly, but implicitly fair and reliable.