Seymour Hersh's critics fail to make their case Credibility: 'The Dark Side of Camelot' is a sound and reliable work of history.

Despite a small number of books criticizing President John F. Kennedy since his assassination, many continue to think of him as an unblemished paragon - a glamorous, intelligent, hard-working chief executive. They like the image of Camelot perpetuated by Kennedy partisans.

At least some Americans want the truth about their presidents, though, even when comfortable myths are shattered. That is where Seymour Hersh comes in. His book, "The Dark Side of Camelot" (Little, Brown, 498 pages, $26.95) is the most relentlessly reported of the paragon-debunking genre. Readers who want Camelot to live will surely be displeased.


Since the book became available, the bulk of the commentary has emphasized Hersh's alleged dark side more than Camelot's. Hersh has been a distinguished investigative reporter for 30 years. He has been responsible for exposes of the Central Intelligence Agency while at the New York Times, for books about Henry Kissinger, the U.S. Army massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai 4, U.S. government falsehoods connected to the downing of a Korean airliner by Soviet pilots, and deceit by U.S. and Israeli governments concerning nuclear weapons. Every one of them has brought down criticism, much of it severe.

Hersh definitely has a dark side. At times brash, loud, profane, given to browbeating recalcitrant custodians of information, driven to be the most successful investigative reporter of his era, Hersh is despised by some fellow journalists, sources and targets, generally more for style than for substance. None of that should obscure this truth: "The Dark Side of Camelot" is a reliable product of a reliable process. It is a convincing work of contemporary history.


Despite his junkyard dog reputation, Hersh is a thoughtful journalist careful about accuracy. So it is a shame that before Nov. 10, the day the book became available, Hersh had attracted attention for a controversy about materials that he did not put in his book about Kennedy.

It happened like this: Deep into his research, Hersh heard about documents being offered for sale by Lex Cusack, son of New York City lawyer Lawrence Cusack. Before his death in 1985, the elder Cusack had represented the Roman Catholic Church and, rumor had it, the nation's best-known Catholic clan, the Kennedy family.

When Hersh viewed the documents, they excited him. They seemed to verify that Kennedy used a girlfriend to transport money to organized crime boss Sam Giancana, in exchange for the mobster fixing the 1960 presidential election in his favor; bribed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to keep quiet about sexual escapades; paid hush money to actress and sometimes lover Marilyn Monroe.

Numerous people warned Hersh the documents were forged. Hersh understood the documents would have to be authenticated. Eventually, tests suggested falsification. Hersh admitted his credulity, destroying a draft chapter based on the Cusack documents.

The writing continued, though - the documents would have been the basis for just a small portion of the book. The overarching theme is Kennedy's recklessness with women and how that recklessness affected governance. The 24 chapters, tied together loosely by that overarching theme, cover Kennedy's ascension to the presidency through the machinations of his wealthy, ruthless father; the dishonest 1960 election; the invasion of Cuba and attempts to murder Fidel Castro; handling of the Cold War Berlin crisis; and the making of the Vietnam War quagmire.

Many of Hersh's findings have been published previously. He is generous in crediting others. But Hersh's book is more than derivative - it contains new disclosures, as well as strengthened proof for oft-told tales.

One disclosure suggests that Kennedy's sexual escapades influenced a multibillion-dollar weapons contract. It is a revealing demonstration of the unsensational manner in which Hersh presents his sensational substance:

In 1962, defense contractors Boeing and General Dynamics were battling to build F-111 combat planes for the Navy and Air Force. Every review panel favored Boeing. General Dynamics received the contract. A generation of journalists before Hersh offered plausible explanations. But Hersh learned something unknown to them.


In 1962, Kennedy was carrying on an extramarital affair with Judith Campbell. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Los Angeles office conducted surveillance on Campbell's apartment, because she was also deeply involved with the Chicago top Mafia boss, Sam Giancana. On Aug. 7, 1962, FBI agents watched two men break in.

Rather than arrest the men or report the break-in to local police, the FBI agents kept the information in-house; they did not want to jeopardize the Campbell surveillance. But they did trace the car used by the two men to I.B. Hale of Fort Worth, Texas. Hale, a former FBI agent, served as chief of security for General Dynamics. The burglars were his sons. Soon after, General Dynamics won the F-111 contract.

Hersh extracted the information from FBI files by using the federal Freedom of Information Act, then tracked down members of the Hale family as well as an FBI agent on the surveillance detail. Hersh cannot be certain that General Dynamics used information from the break-in to blackmail Kennedy. But Hersh presents a plausible case using previously unknown, on-the-record sources.

The General Dynamics section is just one example of Hersh's brilliant, diligent reporting. Unsurprisingly, however, professional historians are criticizing some of his evidence, as well as his speculating what the evidence means. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a Ph.D. historian, said Hersh's book "is a triumph of gullibility. ... The notion that there was a bunch of bimbos parading around the White House is ridiculous. I worked in the White House."

Yet, 20 years ago, Schlesinger wrote a book about the president's brother, Robert, who served as U.S. attorney general. In that book, Schlesinger conceded that President Kennedy and Judith Campbell might have had a sexual relationship that compromised national security because of Campbell's simultaneous relationship with mobster Giancana.

In some instances, if Hersh is correct, Schlesinger is wrong. Both writers re-create a meeting at Robert Kennedy's home on Nov. 22, 1963, a meeting whose participants never anticipated the president would be assassinated later that day. The writers agree on the menu at that meeting - clam chowder and tuna fish sandwiches. They also agree on the presence of Robert Morgenthau, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.


There the agreement ends. Schlesinger says Robert Kennedy had decided to remain in the Cabinet as attorney general as John geared up for reelection to the White House. Hersh, on the other hand, says Morgenthau had been invited to the meeting so Robert Kennedy could ask him to become attorney general. Somebody is mistaken. In Hersh's case, he had to evaluate Schlesinger's version. Did it fit with other information in Hersh's possession? Yes, Hersh decided. Hersh's book is as solidly sourced as any by academically disciplined and credentialed historians. It is possible that in isolated instances Hersh has unwittingly published inaccurate information. It is possible Hersh has reached inaccurate conclusions based on factual material. But despite the naysaying, Hersh's book is a convincing work. It is serious contemporary history. It is certainly not a triumph of gullibility.

Steve Weinberg is editor of the Journal, a bimonthly magazine published by Investigative Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School. He's working on his eighth nonfiction book, a biography of Ida Tarbell, the illustrious turn-of-the-century muckraker.

Pub Date: 11/23/97