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Mafia Helped JFK to Win, Book Claims

Politics: Seymour M. Hersh tome attacks Kennedy's Camelot legacy

November 09, 1997|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — The money, muscle and influence of organized crime helped John F. Kennedy win the closely contested 1960 election, investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh contends in a new book on the Kennedy presidency.

And once Kennedy was inaugurated, Robert F. Kennedy, his brother and attorney general, refused to pursue FBI evidence into widespread voting fraud, Hersh alleges.

In "The Dark Side of Camelot," Hersh claims that the Mafia was brought into the Kennedy presidential campaign--and helped the Democrat carry the key state of Illinois--mainly at the instigation of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., founder of the family political dynasty.

Onetime Kennedy pal Frank Sinatra also played a part in enlisting the aid of organized crime chieftain Sam Giancana in the struggle for the White House against Republican Richard Nixon, Tina Sinatra, the entertainer's daughter, told Hersh.

Hersh's assertions, some of which rely on secondhand accounts and are laced with conjecture, are bound to be hotly disputed by Kennedy partisans and presidential scholars. But the book seems likely to gain attention because of its author's stature, based on his exposure of the 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

Moreover, it is the most ambitious attempt yet to debunk the most romanticized presidency of modern times and the legend it spawned, which has had an enduring impact on how Americans view their chief executives.

The book, an advance copy of which was made available to The Times, goes on sale Monday. It stirred controversy a few weeks ago when it became known that Hersh, for a time, had been taken in by a collection of papers that appeared to cast light on John Kennedy's long-rumored affair with actress Marilyn Monroe.

Although he discarded the documents after concluding they were faked, Hersh included abundant other material dealing with Kennedy's sex life to support his central theme: that flaws in the president's character undermined his administration and warped his stewardship of the nation.

Hersh writes that because Kennedy was "obsessed with sex, and willing to take enormous risks to gratify that obsession," he made himself vulnerable to blackmail.

Indeed, according to an unpublished memoir by Hyman Raskin, a Chicago lawyer and political operative whom Hersh cites, Kennedy was forced to pick then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate in 1960 when Johnson and his fellow Texan, then-House Speaker Sam Rayburn, threatened to divulge some unidentified episode from Kennedy's past. "Those bastards [Johnson and Rayburn] were trying to frame me," Raskin claimed Kennedy told him. "They threatened me with problems, and I don't need more problems. I'm going to have enough problems with Nixon."

According to numerous other accounts--including the recollections of Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's closest aide--Johnson was offered the vice presidential slot mainly because he could help the ticket carry Southern states.

Hersh contends that Kennedy's reckless tendencies extended into foreign policy, notably his backing for undercover plots to subvert the regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and to assassinate Castro. These schemes, Hersh argues, helped to pave the way for Castro to accept Soviet missiles in his country, leading to the United States' near-cataclysmic confrontation with the Soviet Union in 1962.

In a revealing sidelight to that crisis, the book recounts a phone conversation Kennedy had with his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which the two men talked almost nonchalantly about the possibility of nuclear war. The dialogue is based on a recording made by Kennedy but withheld from the Kennedy Library by his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. Kennedy, who was considering an invasion of Cuba, asked Eisenhower if he thought the Soviets would respond by launching nuclear weapons against this country.

"Oh, I don't believe they will," Eisenhower replied.

". . . you would take that risk if the situation seems desirable?" Kennedy asked.

"What can you do?" Eisenhower responded. ". . . I'll say this: I'd want to keep my own people very alert."

Then, Hersh writes, "Eisenhower and Kennedy shared a laugh."

The book provides details of the handsome president's alleged entanglements with a variety of women--some of which have been reported by other authors. Besides Monroe and Giancana's girlfriend, Judith Campbell Exner, Hersh writes of a 19-year-old Radcliffe College student for whom Kennedy found a place on the staff of his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy. "It was very embarrassing," the unnamed inamorata told the author. "It put McGeorge in a very creepy situation."

As for Monroe, Hersh quotes from what is reputed to be a "stream of consciousness" tape-recording made at her psychiatrist's suggestion. "Marilyn Monroe is a soldier," the actress said, referring to herself. "Her commander in chief is the greatest and most powerful man in the world. The first duty of a soldier is to obey her commander in chief. He says, 'Do this,' you do it."

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