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Trashing JFK's Mistress

The NYT's Excuse: 'It Was Sunday'!


Posted Tuesday, September 28, 1999

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        An indignant reader writes:

Since when does the New York Times malign the dead? . . . Check out [Monday's] obit on Judith Campbell Exner, former girlfriend of President John F. Kennedy. Written by Eric Pace, it states in the lead that Exner "asserted in a 1988 interview" an affair with Kennedy, but then three grafs down notes that Exner "gave varying accounts of her supposed relationship with Kennedy" over the years and, in the graf after that, states that "former aides maintained that Kennedy had not had an affair with Mrs. Exner." To buttress this point -- essentially raising the question as to whether Exner was a psychotic fantasist -- we get a quote from reliable Kennedy factotum Dave Powers, saying in 1991, "The only Campbell I know is chunky vegetable soup."

        You would never know from a word in the Times obit that the Campbell-Kennedy relationship is accepted as fact by virtually every serious historian, and for good reason -- it is corroborated by a stream of FBI memos, wiretap intercepts and documents showing regular visits by Exner to the White House and, at a minimum, 70 phone calls from her to the West Wing in 1961 and 1962. The documentation was first disclosed in the Church Committee report on Assassinations in 1977; Campbell Exner was not identified by name in that report, but evidence of the nexus has been considerably advanced by historians over the years. In his book, The Crisis Years, Michael Beschloss describes the Campbell-Kennedy relationship as a "more verifiable tie" of Kennedy's relationship with the Mafia (Campbell at the time was also Sam Giancana's girlfriend), and then notes, among other items of historical interest: a) the 70 phone calls; b) an interview with Kennedy friend, former Florida senator George Smathers, describing how Kennedy talked about Campbell in his presence, and c) Campbell's claim of a meeting between Kennedy and Giancana in a hotel room in Chicago on April 28, 1961, and later White House records showing Kennedy was there in the same hotel on the same day that Campbell claimed. (See Beschloss, The Crisis Years, pages 141-143.)

        Of course, the most compelling [pieces of] evidence are the memos written by J.Edgar Hoover to Robert Kennedy and Lawrence O'Donnell on Feb. 27, 1962, expressing his concern about Kennedy's relationship with Campbell, whom he described as the friend of "a prominent Chicago underwold firgure." That was followed by a March 22, 1962 lunch between Kennedy and Hoover to discuss the affair. Hoover brought along a copy of his memo. The last Kennedy-Campbell phone call was a few hours after the lunch with Hoover. The next day, Kennedy also cut off ties to Frank Sinatra, Giancana's friend who had introduced him to Exner and who was planning to put up the president in Palm Springs, CA that very week, thereby causing a rift with the Mob and Sinatra the ramifications of which would be debated for years. (See Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power, The Life of J. Edgar Hoover, p. 360, and Curtis Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, The Man and the Secrets, p. 488-489.)

        That none of this is mentioned in the Times obit is nothing short of scandalous and raises the question why? ... agrees. In the obituary, accepted historic fact is bizarrely presented as an irresolvable case of "she said/aides said." Is this a new post-Monica sensibility, in which all presidents, even the long-deceased, must be instinctively protected against women who've claimed to have had affairs with them, while those women are reflexively portrayed as non-credible bimbos? Was it now not only wrong for Congress to impeach a sitting, elected president for romantic recklessness, but also wrong for academics, and great newspapers, to try to find out the truth and whether it had consequences for the country? The Exner case is particularly significant in this regard, since it is the leading example of how a private affair might indeed have large public repercussions. (Giancana, at the time, was not only a "prominent Chicago underworld figure," as Hoover put it. He was also apparently then under contract with the CIA to murder Fidel Castro. ) Why the Times' seeming whitewash?

        I called obit-writer Pace, who said, "I'm an old fashioned reporter, and I don't comment on questions like this." Rough translation: 'I'm a reporter, so I don't have to talk to reporters!' Mighty self-protective, those old-fashioned journalistic traditions! (Though in my experience it's only reporters at the high-and-mighty Times who feel no duty to defend their stories.)

        Pace referred me to his boss, Claiborne Ray, who noted forcefully that she didn't write the obituary ("Eric Pace wrote the obituary") and asked that I e-mail my queries, which I did. Nancy Nielsen, a Times spokesperson, then responded, writing:

[W]e think it was an appropriate obit given the resources available to our reporter on Sunday. Therefore, it doesn't make sense to draw wide conclusions about the ethos of 1999 journalism from this one example.

        Rough translation: 'We thought it was a lousy obit too!'

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

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