There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Dark Side of Camelot on the bus

Perhaps you noticed. I would expect regular readers to realize something was different. It has been pronounced, hardly subtle.

A darkness has crept into my posts, a cynicism has replaced my once buoyant transitarian optimism.

Blame Seymour Hersh and his dark and dreary effort to compile every possible bad thing that could be said or at least whispered about President John F. Kennedy and his family.

I have a neighbor who periodically takes a bookcase out of his garage and sets it up next to the curb in front of his house. He then brings a box or two of books from inside his house and fills the bookcase. When he is done, he puts a "Free" sign on the bookcase and goes back inside. Throughout the day, people will stop and take the books. I can't get the wife to stop falling for this ploy.

"It's nothing but trash," I tell her. "If it wasn't trash, he wouldn't be giving it away."

And that's how I came to read "The Dark Side of Camelot" while riding to and from work on the bus.

I suppose the meticulous research Hersh did over five years explains the acclaim the book received when it was originally published in 1997. Hersh names names and cites on-the-record interviews. Over and over, people "recalled in an interview for this book..." and facts from unpublished manuscripts "made available for this book..." revealed secrets hitherto kept from the public.

"Richard Bissel never told it all.

"The patrician Bissell, with his academic background and his passion for sailing, was the prototypical CIA man in the early 1960s, as America began its love affair with the novels of Ian Fleming and his dashing British spy hero, James Bond, the martini-sipping Agent 007. Bissell, handsome and tall, was the man in charge of the CIA's get-Castro planning. He also helped elect John F. Kennedy by meeting with him before the 1960 election and briefing him about the CIA's ever-expanding plans for the overthrow of the Castro regime."
And on and on. From the political corruption of Kennedy's maternal grandfather, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, to the rum-running of Kennedy's father, Joe, to the payoffs in the West Virginia primary to the Chicago theft of the national election, to Kennedy's obsession with assassinating Castro -- all the skeletons are torn from the closet and the bones tossed on the floor.

Much of the book makes an awful -- truly awful -- lot about John F. Kennedy's sexual appetite and the necessary efforts made to make sure it was kept from public view. In hindsight, it's not difficult to imagine what would have happened if the details Hersh unveils had been even hinted at before the 1960 election. All one has to do is recall what became of Democratic Party presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1988.

One of Hersh's sources of information was a transcript of what he describes as a "stream-of-consciousness tape recording [Marilyn] Monroe made at the recommendation of her psychoanalyst." I found the quote he used in the book fascinating:
"Marilyn Monroe is a soldier. 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. He says do that, you do it. This man is going to change our country. No child will go hungry, no person will sleep in the street and get his meals from garbage cans. People who can't afford it will get good medical care. Industrial products will be the best in the world. No, I'm not talking utopia-- that's an illusion. But he will transform America today like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the Thirties. I tell you, Doctor, when he has finished his achievements he will take his place with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt as one of our great presidents. . . . I will never embarrass him. As long as I have memory, I have John Fitzgerald Kennedy."
I remember President Kennedy's assassination. I was in sixth grade. I had been excused early from class to go to the milk room, where I worked at lunchtime. I was halfway there when the principal announced over the school public address system that the president had been shot and killed in Dallas. I didn't know whether I should continue to the milk room. Would there still be lunch? I decided to ask my teacher. I walked back to my classroom and found my teacher sitting in the front of the class crying.

Hersh makes absolutely no effort to explain why that teacher cried, why America cried on Nov. 22, 1963. His book is unrelenting in its effort strip Kennedy of any redeeming quality and in the process to belittle the nation's love and admiration as simply the product of hype and lies.

I am fearful that someone will stumble upon this book before they have read any other book about John F. Kennedy. That would be a real tragedy.


Stephen Rees said...

Just because Kennedy's family included some crooks, does not make the man himself any less great. And of course he had foibles, and weaknesses - he was a human being for goodness sake! And he still strands head and shoulders over those who came after him, especially the bozos the Republicans put up.

And that idea your neighbour has of reducing the size of his book collection os one I will now emulate. It will make me much happier than schlepping books around to second hand shops or charities. Let's share the books, just like we do ebooks and mp3s! And they may not be trash - they certainly weren't when I bought them. Or perhaps he is a reviewer and gets lots of free books.

John said...

I suppose Hersh would argue that his one-sided expose was necessary to counter the efforts of Kennedy's admirers to hide or otherwise obscure his many failings. But the book's complete lack of sympathy for Kennedy calls into question that explanation.

As for my neighbor, I'm not sure where the books came from. The wife only offers that he is a retired lawyer and that he, or maybe it was his wife, had something to do with books. Obviously, I don't get out much to chat with my neighbors.

In our household, the concept of giving away books ranks with giving away children, or perhaps cats. I can't even get the wife to part with the books that are still in boxes from our last move.

Jim said...

People don't necessarily give away "trash" books. Check out BookCrossing for example.

Jim said...

By the way, forgot to mention your review! I agreed with you completely, so I guess I just focused on the book's giveaway aspect. :/

John said...

I suppose I was being a little unfair when I suggested only trash gets put by the curb with a "Free" sign attached. I was looking for an excuse for why I read the book. Somethings you just don't want to admit you picked up by mistake.