Hersh's 'Camelot': flawed, valuable

November 30, 1997|By Paul Duke | Paul Duke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Dark Side of Camelot," by Seymour Hersh. Little Brown. 498 pages. $26.95.

Hardly anybody has had a kind word to say about this book. No sooner had it rolled off the presses than the critics began gunning it down in a fusillade of angry denunciations.

Seymour Hersh may be a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, but the howlers claim he has recklessly gone off the deep end with his harsh portrait of John Kennedy and his licentious lifestyle: that the latest revelations are more fiction than fact, that the episodes of misconduct are no more than warmed-over mud, that this tell-all tale is mostly a collection of tasteless trash that exposes the dark and irresponsible side of Hersh more than the darker side of Camelot.

Some of the criticism is justificd. There is too much over-dramatization, too much reliance on secondary sources and too many speculative leaps about things that "might have happened" instead of solid proof that they did happen. It is hard to believe, for example, that Kennedy's personal misbehavior affected his executive decision-making as much as Hersh contends.

Indeed, some of the conclusions seem absurdly far-fetched. The suggestion that Lyndon Johnson blackmailed his way onto the 1960 Democratic ticket is incomprehensible to those of us who covered the Los Angeles nominating convention. Likewise, the contention that Kennedy stole the election with the help of Chicago mobsters.

Good reporter that he is, Hersh goes overboard in cataloging Kennedy's sexual proclivities, asserting that he neglected his presidential duties in favor of endless frolicking in the White House pool and bedding down prositutes in fancy hotels. By now we all know that he was no saint. But in his prosecutorial zeal to give us the bad side, the author leaves the impression that there was not much of a good side, either.

And yet, if Hersh exaggerates, so, too, do his critics. Among the chief protesters have been presidential assistants Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen, who wrote two of the most idolatrous books about the flawed young president, thereby contributing greatly to the Camelot legend. Their complaints are hardly unbiased.

And while Kennedy's compulsive philandering has been well documented, it still comes as a shock to discover the extent to which the White House became a parlor for adulterous sexual games. Or, that his aides and associates were such masters at assisting in the cover-up. Or, that so many prominent journalists could be so easily deceived by all the carrying-on.

More important, we learn that Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General. Robert Kennedy, were much more involved in plots to assassinate Cuba's Fidel Castro and Vietnamese leader No Dinh Diem than heretofore suspected. There is a fresh and riveting account of the important backstairs contacts with the Soviets during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, reminding us of how close we came to nuclear conflict.

As for the 1960 election, Hersh does provide compelling evidence of what many had long suspected - that the Kennedy forces bought West Virginia's decisive primary contest against Hubert Humphrey with their widespread payoffs to state and local officials. The tainted victory cleared the way for Kennedy to nail down the nomination.

For all the criticism, this book convincingly destroys any lingering doubts that Camelot was the brief shining moment we were told, but rather it was more akin to a forbidding fortress for personal and political adventurism.

Paul Duke, a senior commentator for Public Broadcasting Service, covered the Kennedy campaign in 1960 as a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He also worked for NBC and PBS and moderated "Washington Week in Review" for 20 years.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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