Pool Parties in Camelot: A Muckraking Book on the Kennedy Myth Offers Titillating Details - but Has Problems of Its Own

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A muckraking book on the Kennedy myth offers titillating details--but has problems of its own

AFTER A TOUGH MORNING IN THE Oval Office, John F. Kennedy liked to take a dip in the White House pool. The purpose, according to early hagiographers, to soothe the president's aching back. According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, however, Kennedy was taking care of other needs. As the Secret Service stood guard outside, the president routinely skinny-dipped with two of his favorite female assistants, nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle. One day, warned that Jackie was on her way to the pool for an unexpected swim, the president and his fellow frolickers scrambled for cover. "You could see one big pair of foot prints and two smaller pair of wet footprints leading to the Oval Office," a Secret Service man told Hersh.

Hersh has amassed a wealth of such titillating details for his new book, "The Dark Side of Camelot" (498 pages. Little, Brown. $26.95). Unfortunately, many of the juicier stories aren't exactly new. The scene of Jackie unexpectedly returning to the White House while Kennedy was splashing around with naked ladies was first reported more than 20 years ago in a book called "Dog Days at the White House." by Traphes Bryant, who was a dog handler for the First Family. Fiddle and Faddle made their public debut in the press at the time of some congressional hearings on the abuse of executive power in 1978.

For years Hersh has been claiming to reporters that he was going to expose the darkest secrets of the Kennedy family. This was a formidable task, given that revisionists have been busily debunking Kennedys for at least two decades. It would take a truly astounding scoop at this point to surprise historians, much less shock ordinary moviegoers who learn their' history from Oliver Stone. For a time, it seemed that Hersh had found the smoking gun-a cache of papers tying Kennedy to the mob and a scheme to pay off Marilyn Monroe. But in an embarrassing disclosure last September, Hersh acknowledged that the papers were almost surely forgeries. The admission set off a round of unflattering profiles of Hersh that put an even greater burden on him to deliver a bona fide blockbuster.

While fun to read, Hersh's book is something of an anticlimax. It strongly argues that Kennedy's private sins put his presidency at risk but that is hardly a new idea. What's still missing is the kind of solid proof that would rewrite history. To be sure, Hersh, a dogged and resourceful reporter, has mined the Kennedy drama and turned up a wide array of interesting bit players who have provocative tales to tell. Whether some of them can be believed, however, is a real question. Whether these sources are saying anything new is another question. On page 12, for instance, Hersh reveals that Kennedy tore a groin muscle grabbing at a girl by the pool in September 1963. Forced to wear a full-body brace, he was held erect, unable to bend forward, when Lee Harvey Oswald's first bullet struck him in the neck in Dallas that November. The second shot blew off the back of Kennedy's head. A gruesome shocker-except we learn on page 439 that the information first appeared, with slightly different facts, in a Hugh Sidey column in Time magazine in 1987.

Hersh's most credible new sources are Secret Service men who stood by, appalled, as a steady stream of women, including high-priced prostitutes, were brought in to have sex with the president. One of the agents, Larry Newman, recalled his "baptism by fire." He was guarding the president at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle in November 1961 when a local sheriff came out of the elevator with two "high-class call girls" and proclaimed that he was taking them to the presidential suite. Newman tried to stop them, but presidential aide Dave Powers intervened to usher the hookers right in. One of the local cops asked Newman, "Does this go on all the time?" Newman's answer: "Well, we travel during the day. …