Friday, December 13, 2013
By Hillel Italie
The Associated Press
(Continued from page 2)
In this October 1960 file photo Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, campaign in New York. The Kennedy image, the “mystique” that attracts tourists and historians alike, did not begin with his presidency and is in no danger of ending 50 years after his death. Its journey has been uneven, but resilient - a young and still-evolving politician whose name was sanctified by his assassination, upended by discoveries of womanizing, hidden health problems and political intrigue, and forgiven in numerous polls that place JFK among the most beloved of former presidents.
The Associated Press
But starting in the 1970s, in the post-Watergate era, the Kennedy image was challenged by the findings of congressional committees, by a wave of gossipy best-sellers and by one of the great investigative reporters, Seymour Hersh. His “The Dark Side of Camelot” detailed Kennedy’s many sexual affairs, alleged connections to organized crime and attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. When the book came out in 1997, New York Times reviewer Thomas Powers said Hersh’s “copious new detail often makes for painful reading,” which “can’t honestly be ignored.”
But during a recent interview, Hersh acknowledged that Kennedy’s reputation was intact and that if he’d known the president personally, he might have been charmed, too.
“We like him. He was a cool guy, no question about it,” Hersh said. “But he also had a dark side, a really dark side that many people knew about and didn’t want to talk about.”
Kennedy scandals often run through a cycle of revulsion, then acceptance, even rationalization. Last year, Kennedy was the subject of a best-selling memoir by former White House intern Mimi Alford, an explicit account of the president’s extramarital behavior.
Laurence Leamer, author of “The Kennedy Men” and “The Kennedy Women,” said Alford’s story “sickened” him and made him wonder: “How can you bring that into the picture and feel the same way about him?” Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court” is a sympathetic book that mentions the Alford affair.
“His frenetic need for conquests was not the behavior of a sexual athlete,” Dallek writes. “It was not the sex act that seemed to drive his pursuit of so many women, but the constant need for reaffirmation, or a desire for affection and approval, however transitory, from his casual trysts. It is easy to imagine that Jack was principally responding to feelings of childhood emptiness stemming from a detached mother and an absent father.”
Dallek has learned as much about Kennedy as any living historian. A decade ago, his “An Unfinished Life” was a landmark biography that revealed Kennedy’s health problems were far more extensive than what was reported in his lifetime. Drawing on medical records long kept sealed by the family, Dallek wrote that Kennedy, who had called himself “the healthiest candidate for president,” suffered from a wide variety of ailments and had been prescribed everything from antibiotics to painkillers to antidepressants.
“Schlesinger actually found my revelations interesting,” Dallek says, “because they showed Kennedy was a man who struggled mightily with these health problems and yet was so stoic and effective.”
Previous biographers had failed to receive permission from a three-man board that included former JFK speechwriter and longtime loyalist Theodore Sorensen, who died in 2010. Dallek’s reputation as a fair-minded historian made the difference.
“My argument was, ‘Look, it’s been 40 years and the health records are in the library vaults. What’s the point of keeping them closed forever?”’ Dallek told The Associated Press. “They agreed, but Sorensen was resistant and so I went to New York and spent two hours with him in his apartment. Afterwards, he was frustrated because I said there was a cover-up and he said there was no cover-up. But there was a cover-up.”
Tom Putnam, director of the Kennedy presidential library, said the family had become much more willing to make materials available. He and Nasaw cite as a turning point the decision years ago by JFK siblings Sen. Edward Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver to allow the historian full access to their father’s papers. Publications in recent years include White House tapes, notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s memories of her husband’s administration, recorded in 1964.
Major additions to Kennedy’s story are unlikely, though Dallek says he is still trying to gain access to some tapes from the Kennedy White House and to boxes of Robert Kennedy’s papers. Putnam said the library was working “dutifully” to make all material available.
“Sometimes things are closed for personal privacy reasons or documents may have to be declassified. That’s standard in the archive community,” he said. “But we have opened everything we can. There is no secret room at the library where we keep this hidden trove of materials.”