Books: Molls and mobsters

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