The Palace Gates: The Camelot Fantasy

Assault On Camelot Pulitzer Prize-winning Reporter Seymour Hersh Took On The Kennedy Legend With His Latest Book. Stung By Media Critics, He Stands By His Campaign To Reveal The Dark Side Of The Popular President.

POSTED: November 18, 1997

NEW YORK — It’s been a rough couple of weeks for presidents.

First, news accounts bring us Richard Nixon, swathed again in his Oval Office tapes, casually talking about shaking down the dairy lobby and raffling off ambassadorships like so many Thanksgiving turkeys.

Then we hear Lyndon Johnson, tangled in tapes of his own, confiding to his national security adviser that any war in Vietnam is a complete loser for the United States. “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for,” concludes Johnson, in a conversation recorded in May 1964 – the far side of 50,000 American body bags.

President Clinton is being pinned daily by revelations seeping from congressional hearings on campaign financing. Not to mention the looming Paula Jones sexual-harassment trial.

Yet no one takes the wallop like the one delivered by The Dark Side of Camelot, Seymour M. Hersh’s just-published, no-holds-barred, no-lizards-left-unprodded demolition of John F. Kennedy – and brother-cum-prime-minister Robert. Hersh unravels tales of illicit sex, illicit drugs and fraudulent electioneering, and he burrows into deeply disturbing territory where foreign policy and personal obsession are fused, where the atmosphere of the Cold War yields assassination plots, invasions, and, ultimately, the tragedy of Vietnam.

But now Hersh himself has become the subject of not exactly flattering attention, scorched by old Kennedy aides, by august historians, by news weeklies and national press, by talk-show hosts – by the whole cacophonous media machine that’s set a-blaring by publication of a “big book,” as Hersh has called it.

“I think Sy Hersh is one of the great reporters in America,” said A.J. Langguth, former New York Times reporter and currently a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. “The degree that the Kennedy cult has tried to paper over legitimate problems with his person and presidency is striking. Some people have a glow and nothing can tarnish it.”

Hersh’s glow, though, has been subjected to some frenzied scuffing.

“They’re saying: `secondhand sources, not sourced, just doing it for money, gets it all wrong,’ ” scoffed Hersh.

But none of it bothers him, really, said the 60-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter last week as he restlessly sat in an office of his publisher, Little, Brown. Why? Because he knows, after four years of digging and prodding, that he’s delivered the package, “and what I’ve got, I’ve got just the top of it.”

“I just don’t worry,” he said. “Believe it or not. Do not worry. Asked and answered.” Before him on a desk were scattered piles of government documents, some heavily censored with thick black blots, photocopies of one thing or another, important evidence Hersh has assembled to buttress his points. Every so often he pitches himself forward, rummages through the stacks, pulls out a document, thrusts it out, slaps it down. “Look at this. It’s all right here.”

And money?

“That’s always important in my business,” said Hersh. “Not that I’m a mercenary.” (Hersh received a reported $1 million advance, and there have been additional payments and television contracts in connection with the book. Little, Brown churned out a large 350,000-copy first printing.)

“If you’re in my business over 30 years, writing the kinds of stories you write, you get enemies,” said Hersh. “You get friends too. But you get enemies. So that’s the price.”

My Lai. CIA domestic spying. CIA assassination plots. Henry Kissinger’s love affair with bugging. Israeli nukes.

All were Hersh’s stories. His reporting is relentless, his phone bills enormous, his manner hyperkinetic and conspiratorial. Hersh loves to lower his voice and talk about “the amazing stuff” he’s unearthed or is about to unearth or might unearth if no one is killed.

What he actually reports in Dark Side is disquieting to say the least, despite the fact that the broad outlines of many of the stories have been known for some time.

The Kennedy White House that Hersh describes is a surreal playpen, a Felliniesque carnival of relentless and cynical sex, sinister power plays and cover-ups. On practically a daily basis, we find a naked Jack Kennedy cavorting in the White House pool with secretaries known as Fiddle and Faddle, with “party girls” and starlets. Often the President shoots up with what was most likely speed, provided by Palm Springs’ own infamous “Dr. Feelgood,” Max Jacobson. (“He was the bat wing and chicken blood doctor,” former Secret Service agent Larry Newman told Hersh.)

Those are just warm-ups. Beyond the casual sex kittens, Kennedy maintains a blue-chip portfolio of beautiful women, including Judith Campbell, who also served as a courier between the President and her other paramour, Sam “Mooney” Giancana, Chicago mob boss and presidential hit man; Ellen Rometsch, lover of a communist agent or two (and not a few members of the U.S. Senate), who was being investigated as a possible East German spy at the time Kennedy was assassinated; Durie Malcolm, Kennedy’s first wife (for about one day in 1947, per Hersh); and, oh yes, Marilyn Monroe, who called Kennedy her “commander in chief” in a tape made for her psychotherapist and obtained by Hersh. “Bobby would do anything for his brother,” Monroe says on the tape, “and so would I.”

Jackie, for the most part, remains discreetly off stage, a lonely and somewhat ghostly presence.

All the “womanizing” stories – “Clinton is minor league,” said Hersh – are encrusted with detail. Much of it – but by no means all – is provided in on-the-record interviews with Secret Service agents, still angry with Kennedy and his cronies for their reckless use of flotillas of hookers who could easily have posed a physical threat to the partying President.

Beyond the bright lights and frivolity of the sexcapades, however, lie the darker adventures of the Kennedy years. First among these, in Hersh’s view, are the obsessive Kennedy efforts to topple and murder Fidel Castro and other world leaders. Hersh reports that John and Robert Kennedy not only knew about efforts to assassinate Castro, they jump-started the planning, drawing organized crime leaders in to carry off the hit.

These efforts intensified after the disaster of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, leading, not surprisingly, to high anxiety on the part of Castro, who kept badgering the Soviet Union to do something. Missiles are what the Soviets did, and the nuclear gamesmanship of the October 1962 missile crisis was the result.

Hersh ties the Kennedys to the assassination schemes and the mob about as closely as possible at this late date – and certainly much closer than anyone else has. And he ties the Kennedy obsession with Cuba into the Kennedy escalation in Vietnam. In an very real way, The Dark Side of Camelot is a book about Vietnam. “Vietnam has been my soul forever,” allowed Hersh, who won his Pulitzer in 1970 for uncovering the My Lai massacre.

Hersh’s sources (all identified, here as elsewhere) suggest that Kennedy felt no constraints on his personal or private conduct. Defeat in Cuba was felt as a personal affront, “a humiliation,” in the words of one former CIA official. A consequent need for revenge – shared equally by Bobby and Jack – fueled escalation in Vietnam. Kennedy was intimately versed in CIA-inspired efforts to depose and murder South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, according to some of Hersh’s sources.

But the account here has a twist. Hersh provides evidence that in 1963, the South Vietnamese were seeking to end the war on their own. And while Kennedy may have pulled out of Southeast Asia eventually, Hersh reports, the President made it clear that disengagement was not on the radar screen until after the 1964 elections. By trying to talk with the North in 1963, the South Vietnamese were jumping the gun.

In describing the Kennedy years, Hersh reports a number of important and controversial stories. Some are new, some less so, though the level of detail is rich at all times.

Kennedy, Hersh writes, bribed his way to victory in the pivotal West Virginia primary. He used the mob, led by Mooney Giancana, to ensure a victory in Illinois in the general election of 1960.

Lyndon Johnson doesn’t escape. Hersh sources suggest Johnson may well have blackmailed his way onto the 1960 ticket by threatening to go public with tales of Kennedy’s sexual exploits. Richard Nixon, Hersh reports, accepted a $100,000 bribe from a Romanian businessman and Nazi sympathizer seeking U.S. citizenship at the time of the 1952 election. (The CIA possessed photocopies of the check, according to Hersh’s sources.)

Bagmen are everywhere. Frank Sinatra carries satchels of Kennedy money to the mob. Judith Campbell carries satchels of money to Mooney Giancana. Robert and Edward Kennedy carry satchels of money for West Virgina bribes.

“The book is fiction. Sen. Kennedy and his family are very proud of the record of public service of his two brothers and always will be,” said a statement issued by the senator’s office. “We don’t intend to comment further on this malicious gossip and innuendo.”

“The truth is not in Seymour Hersh,” said Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., historian and former Kennedy aide. “He is the most gullible person in the world, and his gullibility has a sinister edge. He swallowed the Marilyn Monroe forgery. He swallowed almost any rumor he heard from every mobster, every hooker. He swallowed it all, and on public policy he is ridiculous.”

Hersh dismisses Schlesinger as “a poodle” for the Kennedy family.

But Hersh is also clearly annoyed by ongoing snickering over the Marilyn papers incident. Fairly early in his reporting on the book, Hersh obtained a pile of what purported to be Kennedy papers. Included in the files were signed documents in which the President promised to establish a $600,000 trust fund for Monroe’s mother if she kept mum about Kennedy-mob ties. Hersh fell over when he first saw the cache.

“I believe ’em,” he said. “I’m a hell-bent-for-leather guy. I go after stuff. . . . I start charging around.”

What wasn’t there, no matter how hard he looked, was an actual trust fund. Money. Corroboration. Hersh became concerned. Forensic analysis of the documents performed earlier this year raised additional questions, and Hersh backed off, went public, and removed references to the material from his book.

When the news of the purported fraud broke this fall, Hersh was roasted in the press.

“I was beaten up for My Lai, obviously, pretty seriously,” said Hersh. “The domestic [CIA] spying, when I wrote that story, for three months every newspaper went after me. . . . But this was the first time I got beaten up for what I thought. I didn’t write it. . . .

“I do say idiotic things. And I do think things that are idiotic. It’s what I write that I always thought you should be judged by. I can’t imagine any other standard that’s rational. Judge me by what I write.”

Langguth of USC suggested one reason Hersh has been attacked: He is one of the nation’s premier investigative reporters taking on one of the nation’s most cherished myths, the myth of Camelot. Hersh is certainly not the first to do this, but he mounts the most formidable challenge to the palace gates.

“This is what can happen when you go after the dark side of the president,” said Langguth. “It’s certainly legitimate and a healthy corrective. But you’ve got to remember that there was a light side, a vibrancy, a sense of amusement, a decency. The Kennedy presidency was more than a couple of bimbos in a broom closet.”

“Hey, you know what?” said an excited Hersh. “It’s not called The Bright Side. . . . It’s not called The Complete Biography. It’s not called The Balanced, Well-Rounded Biography, His Good and His Bad. It’s called The Dark Side.”

“I went after a dream,” he continued. “It’s a fantasy. It’s also a cult now, I’m beginning to think.”

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Louis Sheehan
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