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A Second Assassination

The Dark Side of Camelot

by Seymour M. Hersh
Little, Brown, 498 pp., $26.95

I am ready to believe nine bad things about John Kennedy before breakfast—until Mr. Hersh adds a tenth, and that makes me begin wondering about the first nine. The more charges he adds to the score, the more I feel I should be subtracting from it. He tells us so many unbelievable things he says we never knew that we begin to doubt all the things we thought we knew. If Hersh will just write two more books about Kennedy, I could end up as starry-eyed about the man as any Sorensen or Schlesinger.

The Giancana Connection

Take the whole long saga of mob leader Sam Giancana. The Church Committee established in 1975 that the CIA tried to use Giancana’s mobsters to assassinate Fidel Castro. (The mob had lost gambling interests to Castro’s government.) But Hersh says that the Kennedys had an earlier and continuing tie with Giancana, who stole the Illinois vote for Kennedy in 1960. The foundation for a Kennedy- Giancana alliance was laid in Prohibition days, when Joseph Kennedy was—Hersh maintains—engaged with gangsters in rum-running. Many have believed this of Joseph Kennedy over the years, but Hersh adds no solid evidence for that belief. He quotes X saying that gangster Y, years afterward, talked of working with Kennedy. He tells us that anyone who owned the Merchandise Mart in Chicago had to know what the gangsters were up to. It is not an implausible theory, though it remains a theory, since Hersh lacks documentary proof, here, of the sort he brings to bear on Kennedy’s father-in-law, John F. Fitzgerald, who stole his election to the House of Representatives in 1918.

But if one believes, as Hersh says he does, in Joseph Kennedy’s close ties with the mob, how can one go on to believe three other things he alleges?

  1. Joseph Kennedy, aware ahead of time that the 1960 election would have to be stolen in Illinois, asked a friend of his, Judge William Tuohy, to arrange a meeting with Giancana. Since the judge did not know Giancana, he asked a lawyer for the mob, Robert McDonnell, to set up the meeting—a meeting the judge was imprudent enough to hold in his own office. The judge is dead now, and McDonnell was seventy-one years old when Hersh interviewed him. McDonnell, a disbarred ex-alcoholic, was convicted in 1966 of using forged money orders and in 1983 of attempted bribery. McDonnell’s one claim to fame was his marriage to Giancana’s daughter, “Toni.” Hersh has only McDonnell’s word for the meeting of Joseph Kennedy with Giancana. And even McDonnell says Giancana did not steal anything for Kennedy, he just got union members to campaign hard for him—which is short of the allegation of vote stealing that Hersh quotes, with apparent agreement, from a former federal prosecutor (G. Robert Blakey).

Is McDonnell’s word stronger than the implausibility of his tale? Why, if Kennedy had long ties with the mob, would he have to go to Judge Tuohy for an introduction to Giancana? If he did not know Giancana by this time, surely he would know somebody who did know him. Yet Hersh relies on bluff to decide the matter: “Robert McDonnell’s firsthand testimony is compelling….” Just in case we are not convinced by now, Hersh adds confirming testimony that is actually contradictory.

  1. Tina Sinatra told Hersh that her father Frank was the go-between who set up a meeting with Giancana on a golf course, to discuss mob help with the 1960 election. Well, which is it to be? If Kennedy was already in contact with Giancana through Sinatra, why did he need to begin all over again with a judge who did not even know the man? Hersh does not address the chronological problem with clarity; he fudges the issue of priority, saying the meeting in Tuohy’s office was sometime “in the winter of 1959-60” and the golf course meeting followed Sinatra’s summons to Hyannis Port “late in 1959.”

  2. Finally, the Kennedys, who seemed to have extraordinary difficulty getting access to Giancana, settled on the least probable intermediary of all, Judith Campbell (now Campbell Exner), who was having an affair with John Kennedy while she was moving in mob circles. “Jack asked, would I set up a meeting with Sam Giancana….” For what reason? “I assumed it was for the campaign.” Is there anyone in America the Kennedys did not go to in 1960 asking for a way to meet with Giancana? It was certainly reckless for Kennedy to be having the affair—though there is no evidence he knew she was sleeping with Giancana at the time (and she, in fact, denies she was). But to trust the mobsters’ party girl with incriminating money, as she claims he did, would be out of character for Kennedy, in ways that Hersh himself has pointed out in another connection. Various women told Hersh that Kennedy had a low regard for women, treating them as mere sex objects. One of the more intelligent former lovers quoted by Hersh strikes the recurring note: “There was a compartment for girls, and once you were in the sex compartment, you weren’t a person anymore. I got declassed and depersonalized.”

Ms. Exner, who naively says that the President loved her, now has a motive for saying that he trusted serious matters to her, even though it means she has to contradict what she told the Church Committee back in 1975 and what she wrote in her as-told-to book of 1977, My Story. Then she said she passed no communications at all between the two men. But now the sixty-three-year-old Exner, debilitated by a long struggle with cancer, assures the eagerly listening Hersh that the messages she carried to Giancana proved Kennedy’s love for her: “He was bringing me into his life, and that was very important to me…. He had to have great trust and faith in me.”

Of course Ms. Exner has, like all of us, read about the CIA’s attempt to use Giancana to assassinate Castro, so—sure enough—Kennedy relied on her to send messages and documents to Giancana dealing with this explosive matter. What documents? Hersh might have asked himself at this moment. Maps of Havana, formulas for poison pills? But that would spoil the good story Hersh is positively salivating over by now. Anyone puzzled by the way Hersh fell for the story of Laurence Cusack, a man passing him forged documents about Marilyn Monroe, has only to read this book to wonder what he would not fall for if it fit his purpose. He even believes Campbell when she adds more people who trusted her with incriminating materials. She made trips taking things to killer Johnny Rosselli as well as to Giancana. She arranged two meetings with Giancana after Kennedy became president. When she became pregnant with Kennedy’s child, she and the President decided she must have an abortion. Where did Kennedy turn for that? By now you expect it: “Would Sam help us?” The President wants to incur a debt that gives precious knowledge of a scandal to the Mafia boss. Sounds believable to Hersh.

Hersh has only one thing to confirm Exner’s suspect new “memories”—at least he thinks it a confirmation. Since Exner was under FBI surveillance (though no money satchels were reported by the agents), J. Edgar Hoover’s men observed a break-in at her house conducted by the twin sons of an ex-FBI man who was acting as chief of security at General Dynamics Corporation. Since General Dynamics later won a defense contract from the Kennedy administration, Hersh asks, “Was Jack Kennedy blackmailed by a desperate corporation?” Even if that hypothesis were granted, it would still not add an ounce of credibility to Exner’s claims that she was a courier taking money and documents from the White House into gangland. Even if the break-in artists knew of these, did they expect her to keep copies after she gave them to Giancana?

What were the intruders after? Love letters? Were they placing a recording device? In any case, Hersh is sure it had to do with Kennedy and with General Dynamics. He assumes what needs proving when he says: “I tried unsuccessfully to find out how General Dynamics learned of Judith Exner’s ties to Jack Kennedy.” That sentence assumes (a) that Hale’s sons did nothing but at the behest of their father, (b) that Hale did nothing but at the behest of General Dynamics, and (c) that the only reason to be interested in Exner was Kennedy. But Exner had far more public ties with Frank Sinatra and Sam Giancana than with Kennedy. Hale’s sons may have had an agenda of their own. Hale, as an ex-agent with security skills for sale, may have had other clients, or freelance interests. Why would General Dynamics, on the improbable hypothesis that it knew of the Kennedy- Exner connection (which Hersh himself calls a closely kept secret), have commissioned an illegal act making the corporation subject to blackmail from Hale, on the off chance of finding something with which the corporation could corrupt the whole procurement process? (Hersh, as usual, writes as if Kennedy acted entirely free of government machinery, defiant of other pressures from powerful players.)

So there you have it. On the flimsy word of three peripheral people—McDonnell, Sinatra fille, and Exner—all boosting their own importance, the whole Giancana tale is fabricated. Each was privy to a crucial contact between Giancana and Kennedy. Two have carried this story into a dishonored age that their tales are meant to ornament. The third, Tina Sinatra, used her story to spice up a TV show about her father, which no one took as “evidence” until Hersh came along. It would be reassuring to think that Hersh’s treatment of the Giancana connection were an exception to his book’s general trustworthiness. Unfortunately, it is entirely typical, and not even the worst case of flimsily substantiated claims.

Sex Life

Hersh runs through the litany of liaisons already reported—Ms. Exner, Inga Arvad, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Florence Pritchett, secretaries “Fiddle” and “Faddle” (Hersh, unlike some writers, does not give their real names), Pamela Turnure, Alicia Darr, Ellen Rometsch, Suzy Chang, Maria Novotny. This topic has been thoroughly gone over and he has nothing but further detail (some of it suspect) to add. A Secret Service man who broke his profession’s code to talk about Kennedy’s sex life gave Hersh an anecdote (investigative reporters love anecdotes) about the President’s wife deciding to use the White House swimming pool while the President was cavorting there with two women. The swimmers escaped by another route, leaving one large set of wet footprints and two small ones. But two other agents, also relied on by Hersh, say the President never had other women in the White House when his wife was there.

Nigel Hamilton, when doing research for his book on Kennedy, turned up records of his continual reinfection with venereal disease. Hersh gives more detail on the problem (chlamydial infection) and on the threat it posed to Kennedy’s sexual partners—including his wife. But the complications of Kennedy’s medical regime were best covered by Richard Reeves, who rightly said that health, not sex, was the real Kennedy secret. The President was taking cortisone for his Addison’s disease (cortisone is a libido booster) and penicillin for his recurring venereal disease—a kind of pharmacological merry-go-round. Since he was also taking painkillers for his back and the amphetamines given him by Max Jacobson (“Doctor Feelgood”), Kennedy was a walking drugstore.

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