'Dark Side of Camelot' takes liberties with the truth

November 19, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- While the accounts of President John F. Kennedy's sexual exploits with Marilyn Monroe and others are the juiciest parts of investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's hot book, ''The Dark Side of Camelot,'' some of his political ''disclosures'' are more titillating to the world of political junkies.

Foremost is Mr. Hersh's contention that Lyndon Johnson became Kennedy's running mate in 1960 not because Kennedy felt he needed LBJ to carry the South but because Johnson blackmailed him by threatening to tell what he knew about Kennedy's sex life.

Relying on the recollections of a relatively minor figure in the Kennedy campaign, the late Hyman Raskin, Mr. Hersh reports that Kennedy had already offered the vice presidential nomination to Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri when he suddenly turned around and anointed Johnson.

Little-known source

Mr. Hersh cites interviews with Raskin before he died and an ''unpublished memoir'' to say that Kennedy was ''made an offer he could not refuse'' by LBJ and his mentor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn. ''In other words, Raskin assumed, Johnson blackmailed his way into the vice presidency,'' Mr. Hersh writes.

Then he adds that ''Raskin could not learn which aspect of the Kennedy history was cited by Johnson and Rayburn in making their threats but he had no doubt'' that the threats worked. Mr. Hersh further cites Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's personal secretary, telling a British journalist, Anthony Summers, that ''she was convinced in mid-1960 that J. Edgar Hoover and Johnson had conspired'' to blackmail Kennedy.

Mr. Hersh quotes Lincoln as telling him in an interview that she overheard John and Robert Kennedy at the time ''very upset and trying to figure out how they could get around it,'' but he adds that she said ''she did not hear any mention then of a specific threat from Johnson. . . . But, she added, 'Jack knew that Hoover and LBJ would just fill the air with womanizing.'''

That Kennedy dangled the vice presidency before Symington and others has been widely reported; it has been a commonplace tactic of presidential candidates to ''offer'' the vice-presidential nomination to a number of people to gain support or simply to make them feel good. And it has been well documented that the Kennedy brothers had contentious talks about offering the veep nomination to LBJ, whom Robert particularly disliked.

But the story of how John Kennedy picked LBJ has been told and retold by individuals directly involved, including Robert Kennedy and in the lengthy memo of the time by Philip Graham, then publisher of the Washington Post, who was a close friend of both Kennedy and Johnson and an intermediary between them over the vice-presidential selection.

Mr. Hersh does repeat as ''the public story'' the account that Kennedy offered the nomination to Johnson in the expectation that LBJ, who was then Senate majority leader, would turn it down, and that when LBJ accepted, Kennedy could not change his mind. He dismisses it as a cover story in favor of the Raskin version.

Raskin said that Kennedy had already settled on Symington until Johnson and Rayburn had somehow persuaded him to change his mind, Mr. Hersh says. ''The Missouri senator's popularity in California was his most obvious asset, in Raskin's opinion; a Kennedy victory there would offset the expected losses in the South,'' Hersh says.

California mystery

Why Raskin might have thought that Symington would have XTC been of any particular help in California is a mystery, especially since Kennedy would be running against Richard Nixon, a Californian. With Johnson on the Democratic ticket, it lost California but won eight Southern states, including LBJ's Texas. So if Kennedy was ''blackmailed'' into taking Johnson, it was a most serendipitous development.

Mr. Hersh also claims that Kennedy won Illinois in 1960 because Chicago Mafia figure Sam Giancana helped him ''steal'' the state and hence the election with mob money and union support. Kennedy carried Illinois by fewer than 9,000 votes out of more than 4.7 million cast.

But Kennedy won 303 electoral votes, 33 more than needed, so even without Illinois' 27 he still would have been elected. There was much speculation thereafter that Illinois had been ''stolen,'' but by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in voting dead citizens and other devices, not by Giancana. Mr. Hersh's version doubtless will reinforce the lament of die-hard Nixonites that Kennedy did indeed steal the presidency.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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