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JFK Revisited

A noted historian and Kennedy Administration insider refutes the revisionist version of JFK's legacy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 1)

Let us first dispose of Camelot. JFK had gone to prep school and college with Alan Jay Lerner, and he liked the songs Lerner and Fredrick Loewe wrote for the popular 1960 musical. But no one when JFK was alive ever spoke of Washington as Camelot--and if anyone had done so, no one would have been more derisive than JFK. Nor did those of us around him see ourselves for a moment, heaven help us, as knights of the Round Table. Camelot was Jacqueline Kennedy's grieving thought a week after her husband was killed. Later she told John Kenneth Galbraith that she feared the idea had been overdone. For that matter, King Arthur's Camelot was hardly noted for marital constancy, and the Arthurian saga concluded in betrayal and death.

Then a word about the 1960 election. A current myth is that the Kennedys stole the election in Illinois and that Richard Nixon's finest hour was his patriotic refusal to shake the republic to its foundations by contesting the result. In fact, Illinois was not crucial to Kennedy's victory. Had he lost Illinois, Kennedy still would have won by 276 to 246 in the electoral college. And, if Mayor Richard Daley's men stole votes in Cook County, Republicans stole votes down- state. The state electoral board, 4-1 Republican, voted unanimously to certify the Kennedy electors.

An associated myth is that Joseph P. Kennedy made a deal in the winter of 1959-1960 with a Chicago gangster named Sam Giancana to use the Mafia and trade unions under Mafia control to turn out the Chicago vote for his son. The elder Kennedy, the story goes, was well acquainted with Mafiosi because he had been a bootlegger himself in Prohibition days 30 years before.

It is true that Kennedy was a whiskey importer in the 1930s, but that was after repeal and entirely legal. During Prohibition, he had worked first as a broker for Hayden Stone and thereafter as a Wall Street speculator on his own. In the mid-1920s, he bought into a chain of movie theaters and soon went into film production. When would he have had time to be a bootlegger? Why would he have run the risk when he could make money easily and legally in Wall Street and Hollywood?

The Founding Father, Richard Whalen's careful and critical 1964 biography, makes no such allegations, beyond noting that Joseph Kennedy produced Scotch for his classmates at their 10th Harvard reunion in 1922--hardly a damning incident. Professor Mark Haller of Temple University recently took the trouble of searching the comprehensive list of bootleggers in the intelligence files of the U.S. Coast Guard and found no mention of Joseph Kennedy. When Kennedy was up for Senate confirmation, first as a chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, then as chairman of the Maritime Commission, then as ambassador to the Court of St. James, no one suggested that he was an ex-bootlegger. Had he been one, he would not have been appointed or confirmed. Yet the bootlegger myth has become a staple of contemporary television shows and supermarket tabloids.

There are other curiosities about the tale. It is curious that the elder Kennedy should have asked the mob to work for his son months before John Kennedy had even won the nomination. It is still more curious that the father should have done so when the only big union influenced by the mob was the Teamsters Union--and the Teamsters, led by Robert Kennedy's mortal enemy, Jimmy Hoffa, were for Nixon. And it is most curious of all that a shrewd and experienced man like Joseph P. Kennedy should have regarded Sam Giancana and not Mayor Daley, the last of the great political bosses, as the key to politics in Chicago.

Giancana was hardly unknown to the Kennedy family. As counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee in 1958, Robert Kennedy had succinctly described Giancana as "chief gunman for the group that succeeded the Capone mob." Called before the committee, Giancana declined to answer questions on the grounds that his answers might tend to incriminate him--and giggled as he declined. Robert Kennedy said bitingly, "I thought only little girls giggled, Mr. Giancana." At the very time the elder Kennedy was supposedly recruiting Giancana for John Kennedy's campaign, Robert Kennedy, in his book The Enemy Within, published in February 1960, was portraying his father's supposed ally in the most scorching and contemptuous way.

Fifteen months after Giancana giggled before the Rackets Committee, the Central Intelligence Agency in its wisdom signed him up in a plot to murder Fidel Castro. The Mafia had flourished in Havana under the indulgent dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, but Castro, when he came to power in 1959, closed its gambling casinos and whorehouses and drove the mobsters from Cuba. This gave the Mafia, as the CIA necromancers saw it, the motives and the contacts to do the dirty deed without implicating the United States government.

Recruiting the Mafia was a decision made by the Eisenhower administration, not, as it is often said, by the Kennedy administration. In September 1960, a CIA operative met with mobsters to work out the details. In October, the CIA installed Giancana and another mobster, John Rosselli, in the Kennilworth Hotel in Miami, offering $150,000 for Castro's assassination. All this took place months before Kennedy was inaugurated.

There is no evidence that the gangsters did much to earn their pay. Giancana bragged to a friend that they were "conning the hell out of the CIA." But working for the CIA, he no doubt believed, would insure him against federal prosecution. Up to a point he was right. While he was plotting away in Miami, he feared that his girl, singer Phyllis McGuire, might be carrying on with comedian Dan Rowan in faraway Las Vegas. He asked the CIA to put an illegal wiretap in Rowan's room. The CIA obliged; the wiretap was discovered; the CIA, claiming that the case involved national security, brought intense pressure on the Department of Justice to stop prosecution.


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