Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book Review: The Dark Side of Camelot

I finished Dune yesterday, but I'll need a few days to write my review; it will probably extend over two or three days. So today I will review a book I finished shortly before starting this blog: The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour M. Hersh; 1997; Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0316359556.

I have read much about the Kennedy family: the assassinations, the presidency, the ancestors, and the descendants. There is no shortage of books in this subject, for the Kennedy saga combines much of what made America great: immigration, entrepreneuism, politics. However, as Seymour Hersh reports, a dark side also existed. Past books have touched on this to varying degrees, and most people today who dig just a little bit into the Kennedy story know it is not always pretty.

Hersh set out to focus on John F. Kennedy's run for the presidency and his time in that office. He begins with recounting events from November 22, 1963. He focuses on what Bobby Kennedy did, how he immediately moved to hide JFK's private files, put them under lock and key. He hid the president's medical records, to keep the world from learning just what a physical basket case JFK was. As he says, "But it was the man closest to John F. Kennedy who needed to put aside his grief and begin immediately to hide all evidence of Kennedy's secret life from the nation--as well as from the new president...." And, "The brothers understood, as the public did not, that they were just one news story away from cataclysmic political scandal."

Kennedy's legacy is one of liberal strength, of diplomatic successes, of great speeches and hard work, etc. Hersh is able to pull the mask off the true JFK and unravel some of this unjustified legacy. Most people have heard about his womanizing, but the extent of moral depravity in our 35th president is astounding. After a late start in the Oval office most mornings, Kennedy would eat lunch there when Jacqui was away, then would go to the White House pool for a naked swimming party with some of his aids and White House secretaries. Hersh explain how when Kennedy was on the road, his aide David Powers was responsible for procuring the hookers who would fill the evening for JKF and others. As a consequence, JFK had round after round of venereal disease, and took massive doses of antibiotics, as well as steroids for other ailments.

Hersh does not confine himself to Kennedy's personal life, however. Clearly documented are: the purchasing of the Democratic nomination in 1960 with the help of the Mafia and Daddy Kennedy's money; the probable stealing of the election in November of that year; the bumbling approach to State issues, where every action was couched, not so much by what was best for America, but by what was politically expedient; the cavalier attitude to the Bay of Pigs invasion by Kennedy and those around him; the way they (JFK and RFK) almost threw away victory in the Cuban missile crisis; and Kennedy's true plans for Vietnam. It is all an incredible revelation.

Hersh wrote his book at exactly the right time. The 1990s were thirty years removed from the presidency that the media called Camelot. Many of the people--the little people no one ever heard of, and the aides to aides--who played a part in the presidency were still alive, and enough years had passed that they were ready to talk. Secret service men spoke freely about how they felt about having to stand outside hotel suite doors while the president was consorting with prostitutes. Those involved in various diplomatic "successes" talked about the truth of the crisis and what the Kennedys knew.

The book has some flaws. It is not documented with rigorous footnotes to sources. The end of the book has "Chapter Notes", wherein Hersh tells of his sources, who he talked with for each chapter, and the nature of what he learned. The way the book is written leads me to conclude it is accurate; I'd just wish he'd have done more footnotes. Then, there is Hersh's habit of saying, "In an interview for this book in...". After the first half dozen times we get the picture that he conducted extensive interviews. After 100 times it was annoying. After 500 times....

This is an excellent read. I encourage all to read it, especially if you still believe JFK was a great president.

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