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Saturday, February 14, 2015

“The Dark Side of Camelot”, by Seymour M. Hersh

498 pages, Little Brown & Co., ISBN-13: 978-0316359559

Books about John F. Kennedy usually fall into one of two groups: the scholarly, mostly admiring “serious” books which concentrate on the issues Kennedy dealt with as President and look only briefly at his many personal flaws; and the so-called “sensationalist” books that focus primarily on JFK’s wild private life and only briefly examine the major historical events of his term of office. With The Dark Side of Camelot, Seymour M. Hersh has written a kind of hybrid account of the Kennedy Presidency, and while I think that many of Hersh’s allegations are true and there’s little doubt (as many other books and sources have since confirmed Hersh’s allegations) that JFK was anything but a saint in his private life, I'm still not convinced that his private behavior had much effect on his judgments and decisions in the historical moments of his brief Presidency.

Hersh does a workmanlike job illustrating the apparently undeniable fact that Kennedy had medical, integrity, and personal problems that the country would probably not have tolerated in a president. This book appears to be well-researched and well-documented and does not present a flattering portrayal of Kennedy – nor does it intend to. Hersh goes into depressing detail as to his theme that JFK’s marriage was a sham; according to Hersh, JFK never missed an opportunity to philander whenever Jackie Kennedy was away (and sometimes when she wasn’t). Much of JFK’s inner circle conspired with him in this regards (according to Hersh) to a degree that is hard to imagine. Hersh further speculates that part of Kennedy's abnormal libido was induced by various drugs he took for his Addison’s condition, and develops this theme further in his discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis and speculates that the cocktail of steroids and other drugs that Kennedy evidently needed to get through the day affected his judgment and his willingness to take risks. This in turn may have caused him to be more prone to the kind of brinksmanship that Hersh claims characterized Kennedy's handling of the Missile Crisis.

Personally, I’m not so sure: despite the fact that the US had an overwhelming nuclear and overall military superiority over Soviets in 1962, Kennedy did not bomb the missiles out but instead negotiated their removal, although from a position of weakness. Here I felt Hersh was unfair to Kennedy: the record seems clear that Kennedy was acutely aware that the world was on the brink of a nuclear confrontation and he was determined to avoid a holocaust while forcing the removal of the missiles. On the other hand, it seems clear that Kennedy’s marriage was a sham and his image of youthful vigor was a brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed BS campaign. Hersh is convincing that Kennedy could not get through the day without a battery of probably illegal and unhealthy drugs. Kennedy was suffering from Addison’s disease, along with a host other health issues – including the famous back problem which couldn’t have been helped by all of the tail he was getting – which put him in constant pain. All of this must have affected his deliberating powers on some level...but to what extant?

This is not a balanced study of the Kennedy administration, but rather the work of an investigative reporter to put names, dates and facts to the rumors and stories that began to circulate in the years after Kennedy’s death. How these things remained secret for so long amazes me – how the standards of the press have changed! – and the overall view presented here is very bleak; if one takes this book as the whole story, one would believe that Kennedy was the most despicable sort of politician, with little regard for the law, no moral sense, and no interest in policy, especially domestic policy. Certainly this book is a legitimate contribution to the history of the era, but only one piece of the puzzle, and a much-needed remedy to the constant hagiography of a slain, flawed President.

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