Sunday, 8 December 2013
We are all used to reading about political scandals, but John F. Kennedy's activities went far beyond the odd indiscreet affair or dodgy business connection. His 'unofficial' CV is remarkable, containing as it does dalliances with prostitutes, connections with organised crime, a string of mistresses, bribery, election fraud and links to a number of assassination attempts on the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.
In tracing Kennedy's inexorable rise, Hersh sets the scene with some illuminating background information on the family, particularly on his ruthless and ambitious father. With rumours constantly linking him to bootlegging, profiteering and organised crime, the bad smell around Joe Kennedy meant that he could never have been president, but he made up his mind that one of his sons would be, whatever it cost. As Hersh puts it, “Joe Kennedy spent his life making money … and then hiding it.” Once his own political career had perished on the rocks of a disastrous tenure as US ambassador to the United Kingdom, Joe used his vast fortune to get his son into the White House.
There seems little doubt, for instance, that the 1960 election was crooked, with even Kennedy's opponent -Richard Nixon- later conceding that, in the realm of street-fighting politics (yes, that's a euphemism for bribery, cheating and lying), he was out of his depth when he tangled with the Kennedys.
The iron curtain around the family can be hard to breach, but Hersh manages to secure a number of startling interviews with former associates and colleagues, revealing several jaw-dropping anecdotes about the extent of the ‘unusual’ lifestyle enjoyed by the president, his brother Bobby and their inner circle.
One of the key arguments of the book is that this very lifestyle presented a significant risk to America’s security. There is certainly evidence to suggest that the president’s complicated relationship with drugs (he was constantly on a cocktail of powerful medication for Addison’s disease and a chronic back condition) may have accounted for his unusually high sex drive and his willingness to take risks. Hersh puts the case that the Cuban missile crisis was down to a disastrously inept policy on Cuba, fuelled by what appeared to be a pathological hatred of Castro and a dangerous taste for brinkmanship. There is little doubt that Kennedy sanctioned various (rather inept) attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader, but he also gave tacit approval for the coup in South Vietnam which resulted in the murders of president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and chief adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu. The fall-out from that would prove to be disastrous.
It might be tempting to think that any modern politician behaving like Kennedy would be exposed and excoriated in the press and social media, but the truth is that many influential people -particularly in the world of journalism- knew about the Kennedys, but chose to put a blind eye to the telescope when it came to the behaviour of the up-and-coming senator and, later, the handsome young president. Having an ideological crush on a politician invariably impairs the critical faculties, a fact that is as true today as it has ever been.
Hersh offers no theories on the assassination, other than to state that the lack of credible evidence points to both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acting alone. If however, you are inclined to conspiracy theories, the book’s merciless accumulation of grubby detail might tempt you to look in one particular direction; when you add up all of the connections with (and favours owed to) various shadowy underworld figures, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to suspect that someone somewhere might have nurtured quite a grievance against the Kennedy clan.
One can’t help but wonder how a family with so many dodgy connections, so many skeletons in so many cupboards, managed to attain a status somewhere between royalty and showbiz demigods. You come away from this book with the impression that, for all the charisma, the glamour and the showboating idealism, the fact that people like this could accede to power is something of a stain on America's soul.