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Memories of JFK: Martyr or satyr – which one was real?

Days before his 1961 presidential inauguration, police and secret service struggle to free John F. Kennedy from a surging crowd at Harvard.

Associated Press

It was 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, that U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. His death still evokes strong memories and his legacy remains strong.

In the autumn of 1997, The Dark Side of Camelot landed like a New England squall. The author was Seymour Hersh, the foremost investigative reporter of his time. The subject was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the cultural icon of his time.

As a correspondent with The Globe and Mail in Washington, I saw Mr. Hersh often that fall. The maelstrom around his withering portrait of deception, narcissism and infidelity was too good to miss, even if it felt like a second assassination.

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As an admirer of the Kennedys, I was skeptical. How to reconcile Mr. Hersh's Lilliputian with history's Sir Lancelot?

One afternoon, sitting in the chaos of his office, Mr. Hersh leaped up and skittered across the room like a waterbug. From a cabinet came a shower of paper. "There, read that!" he said, pulling out a photocopy of some incriminating presidential memorandum and smacking it with the back of his hand. "That's my boy! That's my Jack!"

Surveying his crazy quilt of evidence, argument and animus, I learned, in that moment, something about me, him and the president: Seymour Hersh had his Jack. And I had mine.

My Jack. I had been looking for Jack Kennedy since that Friday afternoon in Aphrodite Christie's third-grade class at Roslyn School in Montreal. The assassination was a cataclysm for all of us that day. It was to affect me in ways – professional, emotional, accidental, almost supernatural – I could not imagine. Whatever stirred this curiosity, wherever it would lead, my search for JFK began on Nov. 22, 1963.

My fascination took flight

"A prince among men," declared Aunt Elsa the evening of the assassination, an encomium a boy could understand. Events were to fall upon each other that weekend like LPs on a turntable. Lee Harvey Oswald was killed on television on Sunday morning while I was at Hebrew School, and Mr. Kennedy was eulogized and buried on Monday afternoon while I was home for lunch.

It was there, in the blizzard of words and pictures, that my fascination took flight. Who knew? At age 9, future astronaut Chris Hadfield wanted Captain Kirk's final frontier. I wanted President Kennedy's New Frontier.

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A year later, my father gave me the newly published Report of the Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy. Below the title, its naive declaration: "The Dramatic Official Answer to Who Killed Kennedy." He knew I had begun to collect memorial material, and today my shelves groan with hundreds of memoirs, diaries, biographies and histories of the Kennedys, their pages creased, sentences underlined, footnotes circled and margins blackened with notes, often juvenile and illegible.

In the beginning, I lionized the man. We all did. He was our Arthurian hero, effortless and unconscious. It was on Aunt Elsa's colour console television tuned to WCAX-TV in Vermont that I saw those gorgeous images: Mr. Kennedy, white chinos and tortoise-shell glasses, sailing off Cape Cod. Kennedy, coatless and hatless, at his inauguration. Mr. Kennedy, before a crowd in Berlin so large and rapturous it is pure theatre. "We'll never have another day like this one as long as we live," he says afterward. That was so him.

During the Cuban missile crisis, he faced down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. That's what it meant, as he said, "to pay any price and bear any burden" for freedom. He created the Peace Corps and promised, literally, the moon. He was tossing off witticisms to reporters and celebrating Nobel laureates at the White House. Americans were playing touch football and taking 50-mile hikes. Camelot was a posthumous myth conjured up immediately by his shattered widow, but it captured an interlude of energy and elegance between a drowsy Dwight Eisenhower and a vulgar Lyndon Johnson. For the things undone, blame a recalcitrant Congress. Mr. Kennedy was paladin, a shot to the nation's solar plexus.

In the 1970s, after Watergate and Vietnam, the tide turned. The revisionists found that Mr. Kennedy had tried to kill Mr. Castro after the disaster at the Bay of Pigs, secretly agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey in return for the ones removed from Cuba, initiated a massive defence build-up, and led the United States into a quagmire in Indochina. The soaring rhetoric had gone flat; after Vietnam, Americans were weary of the price and the burdens.

Oh, how a colossus becomes clay. We learned a quack had been injecting Kennedy with a mysterious cocktail of drugs to treat his troublesome back, one of many ravaging infirmities and illnesses belying the image of jeunesse dorée. There were assignations with Judith Exner, who was linked to the mob, and Marilyn Monroe, who was unstable, and Mary Meyer, who experimented with LSD. Didn't you hear that he'd been married before Jackie?

As Mr. Kennedy went from martyr to satyr, tears turned to leers, then jeers. He was reckless, indulgent and self-destructive. It felt like betrayal. Still, I could not disown him. Depleted, diminished, JFK remained strangely intriguing to me, even more human.

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I came to accept his flaws

By then I had left Choate, the storied preparatory school in Connecticut where Mr. Kennedy had been a rebellious student in the 1930s. That our paths should cross there, so to speak, was a happy coincidence. It deepened my interest in Mr. Kennedy and introduced me to presidential politics. Occasionally I would wander down to the Kennedy archive in the basement of the library, as if going there would help sort things out. I had come to accept a flawed figure of clashing public and private morality. I had also learned that we remember what we want to remember.

At my 40th class reunion last May, we gathered in the chapel to listen to remarks Kennedy had filmed when his portrait was unveiled at the school the year he died. Afterward, Edward M. Kennedy, Jr., rhapsodized about his Uncle Jack's days at Choate, something JFK never did.

When George McGovern ran for president in 1972, I left Choate on weekends to join his quixotic campaign in New Hampshire. I was still coming to terms with losing Bobby, and saw the plainspoken South Dakotan as heir to Camelot.

Bobby's death four years earlier had been harder on me than that of his brother. On June 5, 1968, for no reason, I sat bolt upright at 3:30 a.m., having fallen asleep after midnight with the radio on. Minutes later – as if it had been waiting for me to be fully conscious – the news of the gunshots in the kitchen came from Los Angeles. This time I was old enough to cry.

Was I any closer to understanding Jack Kennedy as I entered university, graduate school and journalism? By the 1980s and 1990s, opinion on JFK was changing again. The release of the audio recordings of the missile crisis showed a conciliatory Mr. Kennedy who had ignored his hawkish advisers and reached a negotiated settlement. It was chilling to discover in 1992 that Soviet field commanders in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons that could have liquidated an invading force and triggered a nuclear war. Under a weaker commander-in-chief, Cuba might have been Armageddon.

By the time The Dark Side of Camelot appeared, the revisionist fever had broken. I was uncomfortable that the emperor had no clothes (if only because he kept shedding them). I could not deny the testimony of Secret Service agents at the pool parties or the elegant deception of his greatest loyalists. I had also concluded that his libido was less important than his statecraft.

The critics savaged Mr. Hersh for his pastiche of anecdotal evidence and conspiracy theory so much that I wondered if he regretted writing the book. I saw him at synagogue on Yom Kippur, and suspected he was plea-bargaining with God. One day, as a gift, he handed me a copy of a Dictaphone recording the president made on Nov. 4, 1963, days after Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem had died in a military coup. Mr. Kennedy is "shocked" by the assassination and takes some responsibility (he might have stopped the coup). John-John, not yet 3, interrupts his meditation. Father and son poignantly discuss leaves in autumn and snow in winter.

The Globe played my story on page one. Years later, the recording was "discovered" in the JFK Library and became news again. In searching for JFK, everyone wants to say something new. Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times and a childhood Kennedy aficionado, suggested recently that a generation of divining JFK has not brought clarity. Despite the estimated 40,000 books on him (a dubious number she cites but does not challenge), she thinks Mr. Kennedy remains "all but impossible to pin down."

Is JFK elusive? Yes, he divided his life into compartments (friends, lovers, colleagues) as if living in a lacquered curio cabinet. Yes, he dissembled about his health, romped like a Regency rake and secretly recorded conversations in the White House. He had an interior life of ambition, guile and desire as deep as the rain forest. He was a contradiction, but not an enigma.

If he seems mysterious, it is because we have failed to reflect and interpret. We're not deconstructing Marco Polo here. We know a lot. The Kennedy archive includes testimony from some 1,600 contemporaries, including Jackie Kennedy. There are 265 hours of audio recordings. There are memoirs, memorandums, diaries, letters, press conferences, briefing papers, telephone records and declassified cables and documents.

Looking for Kennedy, I found unseen footage of him and Bobby in the Oval Office so atmospheric it made me feel like a voyeur. I have trailed through personal papers in London, Washington and Boston that left me transfixed, in place, for hours. I have met relatives and friends, including the nonagenarian Charles and Martha Bartlett, who introduced Jack to Jackie, and Ben Bradlee, the journalist who dined often with them.

Every student of John F. Kennedy wants to decode him – to situate him, to understand him, to determine his place amid the hagiographers and the harpies. You imagine his reactions ("Jesus Christ!" I hear him cry when he sees a newspaper picture of a burning monk in Saigon). You want to get close – to know those who knew him, to touch things he touched, to follow him from the state room on Air Force One to the breakwater at Hyannis Port. "Jack sat there, right where you are now," Mr. Bartlett told me in his sculpted garden in Washington, as though Mr. Kennedy might appear at any moment. "Jack would have liked you," offered Mr. Bradlee, as though that might flatter me. It did.

Strange things happen. As many times as I'd visited Mr. Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery – sometimes at night, usually alone – I had resisted going to Dallas. Yet there I was, one spring night, entering a shadowy, unfamiliar city. At one point, I said: "I think I've been here before," later learning we'd been passing through Dealey Plaza – where Mr. Kennedy was shot.

More than one truth

It took me a decade or so after meeting Mr. Hersh in 1997 to decide whether I, too, had anything to say about JFK. It was time to ask where this journey of a lifetime had taken me.

For the book that followed I owe much to Mr. Hersh. He showed me there is more than one truth, to recognize that, as Pulitzer-winning journalist David M. Shribman astutely put it, "the presence of facts does not mean the truth is present."

So, who is "my Jack?" He was art and artifice. He was a sensualist who inhaled life and a fatalist who sensed his end. He was avant-garde and a pragmatist in a conservative, anti-communist country with pockets of extremism. He was dry, urbane, ironic, sardonic, the Captain of Cool. He proposed the largest tax cut, the most sweeping immigration reform and the most comprehensive civil-rights bill in American history. He ran the first modern election campaign, was the first Catholic and remains the youngest man elected president. He elevated public service and inspired a generation to enter it. He was a war hero who repudiated his generals, repeatedly, and signed the first arms treaty of the postwar era. In his best moment, at the acme of his presidency, he embraced the humanity of the Russians and sought to end the Cold War rather than win it. The very next day, in words for the ages, he recast race as a moral issue. On peace and freedom, the greatest issues of his time, he asked Americans to abandon their prejudices and see the world anew.

My Jack would not have fought a wasting war in Vietnam because he could look beyond his advisers in a way his successors could not. My Jack embraced civil rights belatedly, then passionately, against his political interest, knowing his Democrats would lose the South. My Jack hid the depth of his physical maladies and bore them in private, courageously.

At the end of those feverish thousand days, my Jack was a good president who had a few great innings in a short, shimmering season. No one in the stands will ever forget it.

Of this, I couldn't have persuaded Mr. Hersh even if I had tried. But after we parted, I opened The Dark Side of Camelot to find this inscription: "To Andrew: There may be no truth, but there will always be history. May we learn."

Andrew Cohen is an author, journalist and professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University. Two Days in June, his chronicle of the high noon of Kennedy's presidency, will appear next year.

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