Author Seymour Hersh's dark look at JFK's Camelot has the critics crying hatchet job. But he's having none of it.

CUTTING BOTH WAYS

November 17, 1997|By SUSAN BAER | SUSAN BAER,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This is no book tour.

Seymour M. Hersh blows into the hotel lobby like a cyclone in a suit and declares: "I'm in a war."

At the end of week one of what he calls "pimping away" -- traveling around the country to promote his controversial and much-maligned new book on John F. Kennedy -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist has arrived for an interview armed and combat-ready.

His briefcase is stuffed with documents to back up the many sensational and devastating charges he's made in "The Dark Side of Camelot" (Little, Brown, $26.95), a book that eats the Kennedy myth for breakfast. Frantically pulling out one piece of evidence after another, he attempts to quash any challenge to the book with his trademark 100-mph personality.

"What they are doing is simply, unbelievably, COMPLETELY, UTTERLY, ABSOLUTELY W!-R!-O!-N!-G! WRONG!" he exclaims, railing about those who have challenged one thesis in his book, that Kennedy stole the 1960 election with the help of the Mob.

"They're just WRONG! Wrong in the facts, wrong in the history."

Hersh, 60, who became a hero to a whole generation of journalists after he uncovered the U.S. Army massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1969, says he anticipated criticism of his new book. It does, after all, thoroughly blacken one of America's great icons.

And indeed, his book presents the most unflattering, sordid portrait of JFK ever published by a credible author. There are tales of Kennedy's incessant sex romps -- with prostitutes, starlets and assorted other women not his wife -- at the White House and on the road; a secret first marriage; plots to assassinate several foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro; Mafia connections and payoffs; blackmail by Lyndon B. Johnson; and sundry threats, lies and utter recklessness.

Hersh says the grim and salacious escapades he describes are documented in on-the-record interviews. He says they are newsworthy because they not only reflect on the character of the 35th president, but clearly affected the affairs of the nation and even Kennedy's foreign policy decisions.

In its first week of publication, though, the book has been roundly attacked: by Time ("short on evidence") and Newsweek ("an anticlimax"), his old employer, the New York Times ("downright deceitful"), and the Washington Post ("gossip parading as investigative journalism"), as well as columnists and former Kennedy aides. One, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., called the book "a triumph of gullibility."

Hersh is having none of it.

"The poodle will get his," he snaps, referring to Schlesinger. "What are these guys? Apologists and liars.

"You think I should be bleeding or crying because I'm taking a beating? I don't care. Not a chance."

Still, Hersh seems aware of nearly every disparaging word that's been written.

Even some of his friends and former colleagues are raising eyebrows at a guy who built a reputation as one of the nation's most serious and distinguished investigative reporters, breaking stories about Vietnam, Watergate, the CIA's domestic spying.

Says Pulitzer-Prize winning author Stanley Karnow: "Sy is very diligent, very hard-working, very aggressive. I don't know what's come over him with this one, though."

Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History," one of the definitive books on the Vietnam War, takes issue in particular with Hersh's assertion that Kennedy knew in advance about and approved the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Karnow questions the reliability of Hersh's source on the claim, a CIA operative whom Karnow says he has interviewed at great length and who sometimes "tends to be inventive."

"Look, I'm sorry people tell me things they don't tell other people," Hersh says in response. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that most reporters do what I guess I would have done: [They say] 'If I didn't get it, it isn't good.' That's what happens."

Five years to write

"The Dark Side," for which Hersh received a $1 million advance, took five years to complete. He ended up writing it, though, without what promised to be the most tantalizing new evidence: documents linking Kennedy to the Mob and revealing a scheme to pay off Marilyn Monroe for her silence about her relationship with Kennedy.

The papers, Hersh and others finally concluded this summer, were forgeries and were omitted from the book. NBC, which had planned a special on Hersh's book, canceled it. (ABC later picked up the project and is expected to air a program next month.)

The news about the phony documents has made some people skeptical about the book, but Hersh says he believes there's no such thing as bad publicity.

"It helped enormously," he says of the flap over the faked papers. "How could you possibly think otherwise? I mean, you could almost think I did it on purpose. It's unbelievable how it helped."

Also helpful, Hersh acknowledges, are the stories of threesomes in the Lincoln bedroom and skinny dips in the White House pool with female assistants.

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