(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Few would doubt that The Dark Side of Camelot will rank high among the most controversial books of the 1990’s. Its publication late in 1997 was marked by unprecedented public notice, including a ten-page cover story in Time magazine. Seymour M. Hersh is a reporter whose exposure of the My Lai massacre won him a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, as well as being the author ofThe Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. In The Dark Side of Camelot, he assesses the presidency of John F. Kennedy in the light of his research.

Early in the book, Hersh sets the tone for much of what is to follow by telling how Robert Kennedy, immediately upon his brother’s assassination on November 22, 1963, had the combinations on John Kennedy’s locked files changed because he “understood that public revelation of the material in his brother’s White House files would forever destroy Jack Kennedy’s reputation as president, and his own as attorney general.”

Hersh then goes on to rattle various skeletons in the Kennedy closet, including John Kennedy’s alleged marriage to Durie Malcolm in 1947, his failure to obtain a divorce following this alleged marriage, his complicity in a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plot to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, his prior knowledge of the CIA’s assassinations of the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, and his involvement in the plot to assassinate South Vietnam’s Ngo Dihn Diem. The files, according to Hersh, would also reveal that Kennedy struck a secret deal with Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev to save face during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. This compromise remained secret for the next quarter of a century.

One must ask what has happened to the damning files of which Hersh speaks. Would they not eventually have been placed in the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts? Would other scholars and researchers not have mined them for all the scandal that Hersh suggests was in them? Can they have disappeared totally and forever? Hersh addresses but never fully answers these questions in the book’s epilogue.

Hersh also alleges that Kennedy’s father bought the West Virginia primary for his son and that Kennedy money was funneled into the organized crime syndicate in Chicago through mobsters Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli to ensure both union and mob support of the Kennedy ticket in Illinois. Hersh further alleges irregularities in the handling of campaign funds, a charge made difficult to substantiate, Hersh contends, by the failure of the Kennedy camp to keep books.

Over and above all this, Hersh delves into John Kennedy’s voracious sexual appetites and the effect they had on national security, particularly in the light of the fact that Kennedy supposedly was consorting sexually with women linked to the mob and with at least one known spy. One of his paramours, Judith Campbell Exner, supposedly carried $250,000 in Kennedy cash to Chicago and turned it over to Rosselli and Giancana, who was also sexually involved with Exner, to be used to help solidify Illinois’ Democratic ticket. Hersh goes into detail about a dinner that Exner and Kennedy had in Kennedy’s Georgetown residence when Jacqueline Kennedy was away. He acknowledges in his notes that this account is drawn from Kitty Kelley’s piece in the February 29, 1988, issue of People magazine. Especially interesting is the title of Kelley’s story: “The Dark Side of Camelot.”

Connected to Hersh’s obsession with Kennedy’s promiscuity is the allegation that John Kennedy suffered for more than thirty years from venereal diseases and that information about his general health, which admittedly was less than vigorous, was systematically withheld from the voting public. It has been documented that Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, which reduces the body’s ability to fight infection. Kennedy’s doctors controlled this condition for many years with frequent shots of cortisone, often administered by Dr. Max Jacobson, who, after Kennedy’s election, frequently visited the White House.

According to Hersh, the Kennedy administration was a short step away from disaster throughout its existence because of the embarrassing and compromising secrets surrounding it. A dark specter in the whole convoluted deception that Hersh insists was being perpetrated was J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Hoover’s...

(The entire section is 1884 words.)