Reeves, by the way, learned that taking a hard-eyed look at JFK is to automatically be viewed as nasty and mean-spirited. Whereas his earlier biography of Joseph McCarthy garnered widespread acclaim, the Kennedy book drew decidedly mixed reviews – with critics invariably taking issue not so much with Reeves’s facts as with his allegedly negative tone.
It’s become fairly routine: Every few years some enterprising reporter or biographer unearths new, unflattering information about Kennedy. The inevitable cycle of response – from the media, liberal intellectuals, and, of course, the Kennedy family – is one of shock, followed by denial, followed by silence. Until the next round of revelations, at which point the cycle begins anew – shock, denial, silence.
Seymour Hersh is an investigative journalist with solidly leftist credentials. For thirty years, just about everything he wrote was lapped up by appreciative liberal readers – until he took on the Kennedy legend in his 1997 book The Dark Side of Camelot. While offering little fresh material, Hersh did add a considerable amount of corroborative background and detail to stories unearthed by earlier authors, and for that both he and the book were trashed by liberal reviewers.
After spending years searching through the muck of pumped-up war stories, doctored medical records (contrary to the image of “vigor” he liked to project, Kennedy suffered from a variety of ailments and consumed a prodigious daily cocktail of pharmaceuticals), compulsive extramarital activity, Mafia ties, and electoral shenanigans (“The 1960 presidential election,” Hersh flatly states, “was stolen”), the liberal muckraker was forced to reevaluate a man he once admired.
“Kennedy,” said Hersh in an Atlantic Monthly web interview shortly after the publication of The Dark Side of Camelot, “was much more corrupt than other post-war presidents, by a major factor. Much more manipulative, though Nixon was a close second. There’s nothing wonderful about Nixon – Watergate proved that – but I think that Nixon was an amateur compared to Kennedy…. [Kennedy] was above the law; he didn’t think anything could stop him.”
Particularly irksome to Hersh and others who see through the Camelot haze is the claim by Kennedy apologists that had their man lived, he would have put an end to America’s involvement in Vietnam – this despite the fact that the U.S. commitment in Vietnam expanded from a few hundred military advisers under Eisenhower to nearly 17,000 troops under Kennedy; that the men generally viewed as the architects of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, were in fact holdovers from the Kennedy administration; that just two months before his death Kennedy told Walter Cronkite, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw” and insisted to Chet Huntley that “We are not there to see a war lost”; and that the very speech Kennedy planned to give in Dallas the day he was killed warned that a diminished American commitment in Vietnam would “only encourage Communist penetration.”
The reason for the eagerness on the part of so many on the left to make over Kennedy’s feelings about – and plans for – Vietnam is really quite simple: Kennedy, whatever his failings, was a classic cold warrior who presided over a military buildup that, proportionately, trumped the Reagan buildup of the 1980’s and whose Inaugural address put the world on notice: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Liberals haven’t acted or spoken that way since the Johnson administration, and perhaps Kennedy, had he lived, would have moved to the left along with his brothers Robert and Ted and most of the Democratic Party. But it’s impossible to know for certain, and today’s liberals are stuck with the inconvenient reality that the Kennedy whose legacy they claim as their own was in fact far closer to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in terms of his foreign policy and world view.
Hence the desperate need of Kennedy court historians and media fellow travelers to posit all sorts of fanciful scenarios about how Kennedy would have shed his hawk’s wings and sprouted dove’s feathers had he lived and been reelected in 1964.
Of course, Kennedy insiders have a history of revisionism that goes beyond Vietnam. When the existence of Richard Nixon’s wiretaps and secret White House taping system was revealed in the early 1970’s, Kennedy loyalists were among the loudest critics, contrasting the sinister behavior of Tricky Dick with the high ideals of their golden Prince Jack. But several years later it emerged that Nixon was a mere piker in such matters, at least compared to Kennedy:
“The FBI and the CIA had installed dozens of wiretaps and listening devices on orders and requests from the attorney general [Robert Kennedy],” writes Richard Reeves in his 1993 study President Kennedy: Profile of Power. “Transcripts of secret tapes of steel executives, congressmen, lobbyists, and reporters routinely ended up on the president’s desk. The targets ranged from writers who criticized the president … to members of Kennedy’s own staff.”