11/18/2013 01:42 pm ET

A Muckraker and a President Go to the Dark Side

Sy Hersh was a 27-year-old rookie reporter in 1963, working the night shift for the Associated Press, earning $12 a week and living in a rented room in Chicago. A roommate woke him early in the afternoon on November 22: President Kennedy had been assassinated. "I sat there, glum, like everybody else," Hersh recalled. And then he cried. Like so many idealistic Americans, he adored Kennedy. His first vote in a presidential election was for the man from Massachusetts. Kennedy, he said, "was beautiful."

Later, Hersh -- who became America's most famous investigative reporter -- heard rumors about women Kennedy cavorted with. But, he said, "We were proud of the fact that we had a president who scored with women... a man's man. We were coming off the Eisenhower years. Eisenhower was very boring." Hersh's view on Kennedy would change, however. When he covered the Pentagon, he grew to hate the Vietnam War and learned it was Kennedy who sent American advisers and introduced napalm. He tucked it away as he went on to a startling career -- uncovering the My Lai massacre in 1969, breaking scoop after scoop at the New York Times from 1972 to 1979.

And then writing a vicious but award-winning attack on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his best-selling 1983 book, The Price of Power. By the late 1980s, with book sales stalling and rival Bob Woodward outpacing him, Hersh turned back to Kennedy when his publisher begged him for a Kennedy book.

"I resisted it for a few years -- I'm sure because it was someone else's idea," Hersh said. But he came around when Little, Brown and Co. offered a $1 million advance, putting him, finally, in the Woodward stratosphere. "The original idea was to see if we can figure out how this president died by looking at how he lived," explained Hersh. Although there had been two investigations of the death of the 46-year-old, 35th president, Hersh felt he could find things no one else had. After all, he was the greatest investigative reporter in the world, wasn't he?

With a full-time researcher, Hersh jumped in to a topic that has produced a cottage-industry of books -- an estimated 40,000 since his death. And, as the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death approaches this month, "another vast outpouring" has been loosed, as one essayist points out. What could Hersh do that had not been done before?

Sy Hersh is a serious man who pursues scandals and bad behavior at the highest levels of American government. He likes juicy quotes and government scandals but he is hardly a tabloid-style journalist. However, his pursuit of Kennedy led down a new path -- hot pursuit of Kennedy's much talked-about sex life. A top aide to Sen. Lyndon Johnson told Hersh of a White House meeting with Kennedy. The president did not want to talk business. "You know," Kennedy said, "I get a migraine headache if I don't get a strange piece of ass every day." Hersh, the great investigative reporter, set out to find the women who made the headaches disappear and pierce Kennedy's "dark side."

And find them he did -- some were famous and talked off the record. Some just thrilled to be in bed with the president. And one, Judith Campbell Exner, a moll to a mob boss and to Kennedy, found herself charmed by the slippery Sy Hersh. A beautiful dark-haired, 25-year-old, she was introduced to Kennedy in 1959 by Frank Sinatra and became his regular -- but secret - lover in the White House. "Hersh is incredible," she said. Hersh, who had a 12-year-old daughter, seemed smitten. He said: "If you look at her picture, you see what she was. A total innocent. She was really a nice girl, and John F. Kennedy, our president, took complete advantage of her." She revealed all to Hersh, including what sex positions JFK liked.

The portrait of Kennedy became more damning when Hersh convinced four Secret Service agents to talk about their years on the Kennedy detail. Secret Service agents never talk... never. Until Hersh called a hundred of them and four decided it was time. They felt Kennedy's behavior left the president open to blackmail and violence.

Hersh insisted he did not want to titillate (although surely his book The Dark Side of Camelot did so with threesomes, poolside trysts, prostitutes, and rough-sex with interns). But he began to believe the president's private behavior impacted and compromised public policy decisions.

After Exner's relationship with Kennedy came out in 1975 -- ironically because a Hersh story on CIA spying led to U.S. Senate investigation -- she became a celebrity. But the biggest celeb on the Kennedy radar was, of course, Marilyn Monroe, alleged to be his lover. Hersh pursued it, but became ensnared in one of the greatest frauds in American history. The son of a New York lawyer produced documents for Hersh that seemed to reveal the lovers in action, and to provide glimpses of mob figures in the White House.

"Desperate and seamy things were going on," Hersh concluded from the documents. "The very concept of Democracy is endangered." And Hersh's source, later charged with defrauding investors and sent to prison, kept producing more documents. Hersh was taken in. ''I am sitting here, frankly, scratching at the door like a Chihuahua trying to get in,'' he observed. But doubts about the documents -- a very good fraud indeed -- were raised by NBC and ABC and eventually by researchers working with Hersh. He had been duped.

"JFK-Monroe 'Affair' Papers Faked," headlined the LA Times. "Incendiary JFK Story Goes Up In Smoke," declared the Washington Post. Hersh's book made headlines before it hit stores. When it did go on sale, critics jumped all over Hersh. The Kennedy acolytes called it smarmy, a feeble attempt to tie Kennedy's policy decisions on Cuba and Russia to his undoubted womanizing: "In his mad zeal to destroy Camelot, to raze it down, dance on the rubble... Hersh has with precision and method disassembled and obliterated his own career and reputation," wrote Garry Wills.

Even ardent fans were dismayed. Journalist Richard Reeves, author of a good Kennedy biography, said the book "has shaken me as much as anything I remember in my professional life. It is shocking that a tribal elder as admired as Mr. Hersh could do a book so shoddy."

The attempt to tackle the sexual legacy of John Kennedy was an unmitigated disaster for Sy Hersh, the low point of an otherwise illustrious career. Why would Hersh, the man obsessed with public policy, tackle this sordid tale in the way that he did? Money... perhaps. He was always terribly jealous of what Bob Woodward made from his books. But Hersh insisted that the sexcapades of JFK revealed more than a style, that they revealed a risk-taking and corrupt approach to the presidency. Some scholars agreed that Hersh added new insights to the Kennedy legacy.

Recently, Jill Abramson, the editor of the New York Times, observed that there is still not one great book on Kennedy, that Hersh's book makes him one of the "Kennedy haters" as he "wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob." But we should not be surprised at Hersh's approach. He is a muckraker, in the best sense of that word. He digs down, to get new facts, and shows us the underside of the world -- as indeed he did in the Camelot book. "It's not called The Bright Side," Hersh said. "It's called The Dark Side." And Hersh is never, after all, as Jon Stewart once called him, "Sister Mary Sunshine."

"Scoop Artist" Hersh will prove it again soon when his book on Dick Cheney and the covert activities of the Bush administration comes out. There is unlikely to be sex in this one, but it will, again, be the "dark side" of another presidency.