Books: Molls and mobsters

Rupert Cornwell asks if Clinton is paying for JFK's scandals

The Dark Side of Camelot

by Seymour Hersh

HarperCollins, pounds 8.99

Well, folks, this is it. You have probably read about Jack Kennedy's womanising, the lies about his health, his enlisting of the Chicago mob to steal the 1960 election and assassinate Fidel Castro, the evil machinations of scheming father Joe and enforcer brother Bobby. But never before all in one book, and never in such painstaking detail.

"John Kennedy's policies and life contained many superb moments", Seymour Hersh writes in his preface. You will find not one of them here. The title is an understatement. This is the high-water mark of revisionist Kennedy historiography; an unrelenting and unrelieved effort to find fault, a photographic negative of a book in which the tanned and smiling face comes out black and scowling, where the sober dress of office appears as the white suit of a mafia don.

Take the Cuban missile crisis, supposedly Kennedy's finest hour. How gullible we have been. The President, it transpires, ignored CIA warnings months earlier that Khrushchev was installing missiles on the island. When he realised what was happening, he deliberately went to the very brink of nuclear war to "cut off Khrushchev's balls". Privately, the Kennedy brothers agreed to withdraw US Jupiter missiles from Turkey, but the concession, says Hersh, was kept secret to preserve Bobby Kennedy's tough-guy image for a later Presidential run.

But the Camelot myth endures. Most of what Hersh recounts - JFK's annulled first marriage, the fornicating, the illnesses, the dirty tricks, the bare-knuckle politics of the Kennedy clan - has appeared in one form or other. Yet year after year, in poll after poll, Americans continue to rate JFK alongside Truman, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt as a "nearly great" President, bettered only by the Big Three of Washington, Lincoln and FDR. The reasons of course are the dazzling glamour of his life, the tragically premature death, and a sense of what might have been.

But what might have been? The family game plan was clear: eight years of Jack, eight years of Bobby, perhaps a bit of Teddy further down the line. In fact, by autumn 1963, events were casting menacing shadows over the future. The Kennedys were scared stiff by stories that two call-girls featuring in the Profumo scandal in Britain - Mariella Novotny and Suzy Chang - had serviced "a very senior elected US Government official" before and after the 1960 election. On Capitol Hill, Republicans had learnt about a sleaze scandal involving Ellen Rometsch, a Washington courtesan and East German national with whom Jack dallied often. Hersh talked to four members of the President's secret-service detail. All were appalled by the debauchery and one, William McIntyre (who guarded Kennedy during the President's last three months), reckoned the incessant womanising "would have had to come out in the next year or so".

One must assume an investigative reporter as accomplished as Hersh has got his facts right, even if his near-hoodwinking by forged letters purporting to document a pay-off deal between JFK and his paramour Marilyn Monroe do raise doubts. The facts tell a squalid story indeed. But they fail to prove that Kennedy's reckless private life affected the performance of his public office. Had the American public known about his precarious health and prodigious sex drive ("I get a migraine headache if I don't get a strange piece of ass every day," the 35th President once confided), they probably wouldn't have voted for him. Kennedy had a remarkable ability to compartmentalise his life. In the tautest moments over Berlin and Cuba, what stands out is his judgment and coolness under pressure. Yes, Jimmy Carter was a good and virtuous man. But who would have made a better fist of the Tehran hostage crisis, he or JFK?

As the misadventures of Bill Clinton show, Kennedy could not have got away with it today. Even exposing oneself to an Arkansas state employee and vacuum-cleaning the Asian-American community for campaign money are small sins compared to whoring in the White House, carousing with mobsters, and enabling giant corporations to bribe and blackmail for huge defence contracts. Hersh leaves little doubt that General Dynamics used knowledge of Kennedy's affair with Judith Campbell Exner (the mistress he shared with Chicago mafia chief Sam Giancana) to force its unwanted F-111 bomber on the US army and navy, despite unanimous and correct expert warnings that the plane was a disaster.

Today's celebrity-driven journalism has none of the inhibitions of Ben Bradlee (then of Newsweek), trapped by friendship and veneration of Kennedy's office into complicitous silence. Watergate has seen to it that the press no longer accords any benefit of the doubt to occupants of the Oval Office. JFK was Clinton's boyhood hero. He can never have imagined that he'd now be paying the bills for Jack Kennedy's scandals.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

    £70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all