Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Dark Side of Camelot

There are many Jack Kennedys in America's collective consciousness, even 46 years after his Friday lunchtime slaying under clearing Dallas skies. It was the most public killing in American history until the destruction of the World Trade Center on a sunny Tuesday morning.

A million bits of paper, freed through gaping holes in the burning Twin Towers, fluttered high over Manhattan. So did the president's brother and political keeper, Robert Kennedy, face a blizzard of paperwork as he secured safes at the White House, the Justice Department, the national security regimes and other offices around Washington. His goal: to hide his dead brother's sins and political missteps from a shocked and mourning American people.

Bobby wanted to protect his brother's legacy while denying the Kennedy family's political enemies their proof of JFK's complicity in the murder of Diem of South Vietnam; Lumumba of the Congo; Arbenz of the Dominican Republic and other excesses of presidential power; the failure of the Bay of Pigs; the secret deal with Khrushchev to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey to end the Cuban Missile Crisis and other details best kept from the public so soon after JFK's death.

Nor was there any love lost between Bobby and Lyndon Baines Johnson, the newly sworn-in president already in the air with the slain president on board. Bobby worked the phones the afternoon of the shooting, ordering longtime Kennedy family aides and political operatives to not discuss what they knew and to secure any letters, memos or notes of communications in which JFK took part.

In addition to changing the combination on the Oval Office safe to keep LBJ from discovering its contents until he could find a secure place for them, Bobby ordered the removal of the secret taping system that JFK had installed not only in the Oval Office but throughout the living quarters that the president, until two nights before, had shared not only with Jacqueline but with a woman whom Bobby himself had arranged for his brother to bed.

So opens "The Dark Side of Camelot," a 1997 classic by Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the My Lai story. Worth a revisit at this time, it's a thoroughly researched and hyper-revealing look not only at JFK's life and presidency but at the horrifying politics of the time. Politics so well hidden from a trusting public by a press corps that, by and large, honored an unwritten rule that certain things a powerful man does are best not reported.

Jack Kennedy was incapable of true partnership with people beyond Bobby and his father, Joe, whom he worshiped. He inherited his father's beliefs that other men were of lesser importance and were to be used for personal gain. Women, meanwhile, were a beautiful distraction that held little value beyond sexual pleasure.

Hersh personally interviewed many men and women who had known JFK since his days as a congressman from Massachusetts; his behavior hadn't changed since his carefree college days at Harvard.

For all that was at stake, JFK at times felt he was invincible, that nothing could touch him. Recklessness is a Kennedy trait and JFK brought it to the fore after he won the presidency.

Hersh quotes a longtime lover of Jack's who slept with him the night before his inauguration. She said the idea of betraying Jacqueline and his children was not on his mind, even though, had it been reported by an otherwise fawning press, his political career would have been over before his first 100 days in the White House.

She said, "I think somehow between his money, his position, his charm, his whatever, he was caught up in feeling that he was buffered. That people would take care of it. There is that feeling that you are not accountable, that the laws of the world do not apply to you. Laws had never been applied to his father and to him."

Yet JFK, described by former lovers as smooth, a charming man who laughed easily when among peers at the thousands of nights of parties and social events in his political years, kept the Kennedy aloofness at the same time.

Hersh interviewed Charles Spalding, who grew up with JFK: "Kennedy hated physical touching. People taking liberties with him," said Spalding. "Which I assume goes back to his mother [Rose] and the fact that she was so cold, so distant."

As president, JFK ignored the niceties of politics when he had to. He ordered the assassinations of world leaders and, like his father, had a working relationship with organized crime bosses in Chicago and New Orleans. JFK also regularly received graft while in the White House, Hersh writes. Over a period of years, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from California businessmen were delivered to the White House by operatives. Chicago mobster Sam Giancana's girlfriend on several occasions ran money from JFK's White House to the mob boss personally. She'd board a train at Union Station carrying a suitcase filled with cash and deliver it to Giancana himself, who would meet her at the Chicago train station. Not once, but several times, according to Hersh. The delivery of the money was set up by Bobby.

Was it money for Giancana's help in trying to kill Castro? A payoff for delivering votes in the 1960 election, which Kennedy won by a very slim margin? "That election was stolen," Hersh writes.

There is no understanding Jack Kennedy without investigating his grandfather, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, an old Boston pol, bought a seat in Congress in 1912 but lost it after an investigation by the House.

Joe Kennedy played a big role in that scandalous election, hiring thugs to beat voters opposed to Fitz; Joe then used money and less-violent but just as effective means to get his son Jack elected president. The lessons were not lost on Jack.

Hersh's book is priceless in its bare-knuckled accuracy, from the origins of the Kennedy empire, the purchase of the 1960 presidential election, JFK's deadly international gamesmanship, J. Edgar Hoover's hatred of the Kennedys and father Joe's embracing of Adolf Hitler's politics.

The myth of the young idealist, the brave and courageous knight cut down early in life, still survives in the hearts of most Americans. In spite of the facts, JFK's role is that of the fair-haired American prince worthy of canonization.

Thanks to Hersh, history is properly recorded here for those willing to read it. "The Dark Side of Camelot" reveals a rogue's gallery of pimps, mobsters, right-wing military officers, ruthless political operatives, a fanatical FBI director and, of course, CIA spooks -- all the shadowy illegitimates of American politics who helped give JFK the presidency and who eventually decided to take it all away from him after the rain stopped falling in Dallas.

In a tragic twist of irony, Hersh connects JFK's inability to dodge the final head-blast from "Oswald's rifle" to JFK's amorous adventures. Because he'd strained his back while having a tryst in the pool belonging to his brother-in-law, the actor Peter Lawford, JFK had to wear a canvas and metal back brace from his neck to his waste. When hit by the neck shot, JFK tried to duck before the second (or third) shot -- but the brace limited his motion.

This book is as explosive as the bullet that sent JFK's skull flying.

Thanks to John L. Guerra

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