Seymour M. Hersh has won more than a dozen major journalism prizes as an investigative reporter, including the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his disclosure of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. In the 1970’s he worked for The New York Times in Washington and New York and has rejoined the paper twice on special assignment. He is the author of six books, including "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; "The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It," and "The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and America’s Foreign Policy." His latest book, "The Dark Side of Camelot," has been the subject of much controversy. Here is an edited transcript of his remarks at a Nieman Fellows seminar February 6, 1998.
I published a book in 1983 about Kissinger in the Nixon White House and at that time I knew some pretty horrible stuff about Richard Nixon’s personal life, and I’ll tell you why I didn’t write it.
There was a serious empirical basis for believing he was a wife beater, and had done so—at least hospitalized her a number of times. 1 had access to some records. Okay? I’m talking about trauma, and three distinct cases. And so I really brooded about what to do about this because it’s a huge selling point for a book. (By the way, that is much less of a consideration than you think, because you really don’t think about what’s going to sell when you are in the throes of collecting information.)
My concern was that I couldn’t find a time when Richard Nixon went looking for Pat and couldn’t find her and bombed Cambodia instead. But if I had I would have written it as an example of why his personal life impinges on policy. You know, he liked to beat up his wife, he couldn’t find her, went out and hit Cambodia, right? Okay. I’m joking. But the point I’m making is I couldn’t find any connection between what he did in his private life, and so I didn’t use it.
In the case of Kennedy I’m automatically sort of screwed by the fact that Secret Service guys are talking on the record. They’re willing to go on the record, and you get a sense of what violation, or reputed violation, of some inherent wonderful trust that we think exists between the Secret Service and the President. I for the life of me don’t know why. [A Secret Service man] is a law officer. It doesn’t matter what he does for the President. If he sees a crime committed and he goes to a grand jury, it seems clear that he’s got to testify about it.
I got to these agents because I started the book on Kennedy for a couple of reasons. One, I had a publisher who was going to give me a lot of money to do it. That’s very important, you know, these days.
The other thing about Kennedy—remember this was five years ago—there was a sense of incompleteness about him. The same lying—and everybody wrote about that—that went on in Johnson’s administration went on in Kennedy’s. And the documents, especially the Pentagon Papers, are very clear that the cynicism of that administration was pretty acute.
I had done a lot of reporting for The New York Times about the CIA and the abuses in 1974-75. And you had the spectacle of Dick Helms, the head of the CIA, called before Congress, which discovered the assassination attempts against [Fidel] Castro, [Patrice] Lumumba, [Molina] Trujillo. And he’s called to testify about those. Of course, particularly with Castro, he says, "I thought I had orders but I’m not going to say who."
It was very clear then that Dick Helms cannot say to Congress in 1975 "the President told me." Because if he does the CIA is out of business. And there’s something inherently heinous about the director of an executive agency that works for the President who, upon being summoned before Congress and sworn to tell the truth, cannot tell the truth because he’s loyal to another oath he had taken to the President of the United States.
In other words, the President of the United States can write a secret order to the CIA that, "I want so and so offed." He has to do it in very discrete language; it’s officially illegal. And the CIA will carry out this action. If Congress investigates it, the CIA has to deny it—it’s called "plausible denyability." Keeping the President out of such areas is the [duty] of the CIA.
I knew that the Kennedys had to be more involved. There’s no way the CIA is going to spend all those years, according to the committee report, trying to kill Castro and not have the White House know all about it.
So 1 start work. That was the initial entry point to doing the book. I’m talking to retired agents of the CIA, guys who worked Cuba. I’m getting the stories, as I knew I would because I knew they would all point the finger at the Kennedys, particularly Bobby.
But I’m getting more than that. They’re telling me about what happened in ’61 and ’62. I’m also getting documents from the period that show beyond a doubt that what they were saying to me is what they thought, too; that this was all Kennedy madness, this going after Castro.
Q.—What was the motivation for offing Castro?
A.—I’ll be honest. I think there were some quid pro quos they made with organized crime before the election. They did work closely with the [Sam] Giancana family. There’s no question about it. And what did they want? Well, you know, everybody thinks that they wanted the FBI to stop pushing them around. The FBI had begun investigating organized crime in the last years of the Eisenhower Administration, and had done a great job. For Bobby Kennedy to suddenly stop that would be impossible. So they had to live with that continued pressure.
Everybody said that’s such an interesting conundrum. How could the Kennedys be connected with organized crime while the Kennedys are still investigating them? In fact, two months
after Kennedy became Attorney General the FBI came up with a terrific field report saying the  election was stolen in Chicago. The sources for this include all sorts of FBI officials who are still alive.
It was given to Bobby Kennedy, who killed it. Bobby Kennedy could do that. But he couldn’t stop the investigations. He could not go ahead with an investigation into his brother’s election but he couldn’t stop the continuing investigation. It just would have been too overt.
The deal was always for Cuba. Castro had taken over Cuba and shut down the gambling and the casinos. The reason why I don’t think organized crime had anything to do with Kennedy’s assassination is really simple. Jack Kennedy wanted Castro killed to the day he died. The day he died they were passing a pen that could be filled with poison to a CIA operative in Paris.
So long as Kennedy is trying to kill Castro that means that there’s a very good chance that his administration is going to eventually do it with the CIA or organized crime or somebody. And the new government presumably will allow gambling to come back so they can get back an incredible source of income—the casinos, the whorehouses, the hotels. So I think that the notion that the mob had anything to do with killing Kennedy is equivalent to, you know, of why they would want to kill the goose that’s going to lay the golden egg.
But all of this led me into this whole play of organized crime. The agency is constantly complaining—not to the President, nobody does that, but internally. "What is this about? We’ve got no assets there. We’ve got real problems in Berlin, Vietnam. What are we worrying about these guys for?"
So I asked one of the spooks, one of the CIA guys, "Why was he so nutty about this?" He says, "If you want to learn about Jack Kennedy go find his Secret Service agents. Just go do it." So I did.
I talked to about 10 of them. Four we actually got to go on record and went on camera for the ABC documentary, which [was] an amazing feat in itself.
Others were there ready to talk. If those guys are ready to talk about sex I’m ready to write about it. But the purpose in doing it was, you see, that the whole point of his sexual behavior was that it was a recklessness that fell over into other areas—Castro, Vietnam, the missile crisis. I’m going after all of them. I’m doing revisionist history on all of them.
Of course, it’s not going to make a lot of people happy in the journalist business. When I was an AP kid covering the Pentagon in the 6()’s I learned to hate the war. But if somebody in the LA. Times got a great story that even hit the war hard, I was the first guy in the next morning to Arthur Sylvester, the Press Secretary, trying to get a knockdown —"Pentagon denied today the report"—because somebody else had something I didn’t have. That’s our business. It’s wrong. You have to understand that’s very deep in our system. It’s pervasive. Most of the time it’s all-out war. I’m glad I’m not a reporter now because the competitive instinct is so strong it dominates everything.
The point is it’s inevitable that what I’m saying by indirection is that if I’m right about the Kennedy presidency—if I’m right—two generations of reporters and historians are wrong. I understood I was not going to get prizes for this book.
What’s ironic about what’s going on now [the special prosecutor’s investigation of sexual allegations and subornation of perjury charges against President Clinton] is that the issue for me isn’t oral sex. It’s what does it say about this guy and what else do we want to look at? If you have looked at the literature it’s clearly a pathology. There’s been a lot of amazingly detailed psychoanalytical treatises and studies done on this pathology.
If you read the literature about this obsessive need for sex [one thing that is] interesting is it’s almost a daily requirement. If you don’t get it you get depressed. Kennedy used to talk about having headaches all the time when he didn’t get sex. That was his way of coping with it.
One of the Secret Service guys [told] me [that] on Fridays, if Jackie Kennedy would stick around for the weekend, [the President] was like a rooster that had been sprayed with water. He would get headaches and have a lousy weekend, because he didn’t want to mess around when his wife was around.
It also involves a certain denigration of women. It’s the need to have this kind of sex that doesn’t stem from a sexual desire, I guess. It stems from other sorts of neurotic things in your makeup. It makes you take huge risks, like messing around with a 21-year-old intern. And if you’re taking those risks can you stop those risks just there?
What I’m interested in in Clinton—and I guess we’re going to have to wait years to figure it out—[is] looking at some of the foreign policy and other decisions. I’d like to see us branch out in this particular story away from the sexual, the physical aspect, into the other elements of his character, and see what other risk-taking he does. I would just guess that there’s got to be some things he does in other areas that are just staggering. You know, we never know much about what’s going on.
Q.—If you were writing today about Nixon, would you [write about the wife beating]?
Q.—What has changed in your thinking?
A.—If I didn’t write it the sources would tell it anyway. It’s a different world now. I’m all for the proliferation of news media and Internet. I think this is a serious bump on the road. The proliferation obviously has very deleterious effects, for the chances of the papers not being right about any given thing are so much higher than they’ve ever been. I mean, it’s really nuts. They’ve never been quite as high. In Watergate, don’t forget, we were dealing with high crimes. We weren’t dealing about whether she gave him a blow job in this corner of the room.
Q.—You cited competition as the reason for running this story.
Q.—Absent competition, if you had some exclusive deal. Is that still a newsworthy story?
Q.—You don’t think so?
A.—No. It’s his business.
Q.—You say you had it cold. Do you have evidence that Richard Nixon—.
A.—I’m talking about 1983- Today I don’t think so. We could argue about it. No, I don’t think so. I had three instances when he hit her; three different times that he hit her bad enough to hurt her.
Q.—You have three instances of the President of the United States—
A.—No. Twice President, once before.
Q.—Twice while he was President?
A.—Twice while he was President.
Q.—Two times while he was President that he beat his wife.
A.—One was definitely when he was in the White House. One was within days of getting to San Clemente afterwards . And one was in ’62. Three times. I presume there were others because that’s a pattern.
Q.—Would you need more incidents to run that story?
A.—We’re talking about 1983—it was not a story.
A.—1998 is it a story? You know, [in the early 1980’s] the clerks on the Supreme Court were very, very upset because one of their fellow clerks was in a gay relationship, a male, with a leading member of the Solicitor General’s office, who was arguing a case before the courts. Now, have you got the picture? A clerk for one of the justices is having an affair with a member of the SG’s office.
His justice was liberal—old liberal. Relied on his clerks a lot because of his age. He didn’t have the energy. On at least two cases—it might be three, but I know two cases stick in my mind—there were real problems. This member of the SG staff argued before the court on prisoner rights, search and seizure, police rights. If you suspect marijuana how far can you go? What’s the search and seizure issue?
The court voted five to four in favor of more rights for police and less rights for the victims. This particular justice, who had always been a pro-victim person, in these two cases came down on the side of the SG, the government. This is obviously in the Reagan White House. And that was their position. They were expanding police search rights. And the court expanded it.
The other clerks were convinced that this was an unholy alliance. In other words, they were convinced that the gay relationship between these two men was forcing the clerk [into] writing briefs that would favor the position of his lover. This [justice] was the swing vote and he was coming the wrong way. I went to The New York Times with the story.
We did not write it. We resolved it by getting a message to the Attorney General. And this fellow went on leave, resigned and went to teach somewhere.
Now that would probably be a story [today]. I don’t think we’d hesitate. Things have changed. Now it would be a story, "Oh, my God, a gay relationship on the court." But then I did not think it was a story. I thought it was his business. I always personalize it. Have I ever hit a woman? You know, I mean, you always can do all these things to yourself. How do I know what he really did? You know, et cetera, et cetera. There’s a million ways to deal with it.
Q.—I don’t want to belabor this, but why do you think it spills over into policy if the President has a compulsive need for sex, but not if he has a pattern of hitting his wife—
Q.—Which is a crime.
A.—Because I’m stuck in my own malaise. I’m stuck in my own world. That’s all. That’s just where 1 was.
Q.—If a story about the President of the United States hittingawoman stirred one person to perhaps not hit his wife, it had a purpose—
A.—Let’s hear this.
Q.—If you have an expose on the President of the United States and his compulsion to hit his wife—
A.—Hold on. Hold on. Expose—expose—hold on a second. Let’s talk journalism here for a second. Let’s get back to the core. That story would have been denied by Nixon, his wife. The sources would have gone batshit if I’d named them. I talked to a doctor involved. He was in direct violation of the Hippocratic Oath. So I had a million technical problems with that story. I’m still telling you why I don’t think I would have written it. But if I had decided on the grounds that it was a crime, I would have had another problem. I can’t even tell you now how much I really got down to the nitty gritty of whether that story could be included. In a book you could slide that story in in some way.
In the Kennedy book, there were a lot of things that I and the Secret Service guys talked about [that I] didn’t write.
Q.—There was stuff you wrote in that book you wouldn’t write in a newspaper?
A.—I couldn’t write in the newspaper [but] not because of the sourcing. I just don’t thinkyou could write a story about Kennedy and women in a newspaper. You’d have to have some nexus for it. In the big frame of a book, you could do it. Like even the organized crime stuff. I use people on the record mostly. And so, if I’ve got them on the record, I could theoretically fit them in the mold for a newspaper or certainly a magazine. But without the frame, you lose focus, you know? It’s the big frame.
Q.—Would you write it today?
A.—It would be so much easier to write it today.
Q.—It would be easier to write it today, but you’ve still got the same problem.
A.—Right. If you wrote it, it’s going to be almost impossible for any other reporter in any other news organization to match those sources. So the story goes out, everybody denies it, and it dies. What happens next? That’s where you get stuck.
There’s a lot of mess in all this stuff. All these things are very complicated. Let’s just resolve the problem by saying it’s very clean. I never thought in ’83, unless it really impacted on the policy, and maybe it’s naivete, maybe there I’m missing something, maybe Nixon—maybe the attitude toward women he had was the attitude he had towards the North Vietnamese.
Q.—The Wall Street Journal ran an almost identical column on the head of the SEC, I believe.
A.—Right. But they were in a divorce. It came out in a divorce proceeding. It was on the record. They weren’t breaking any ground. It was in sworn documents. It was in documents in a court case. But a story like this that comes out of nowhere, unconnected with anything on either end of a story, how do you get it in the paper? And then how do you take it to the next step?
Q.—What do you mean, how do you get it in?
A.—Well, if it comes out there’s no reason to suspect N ixon [ of] doing anything to his wife, out of the blue you write a piece and say, "He hits his wife." Then what?
0—What if it’s another crime that he’s committing? What if he went in and robbed a bank?
A.—Wait a second. Hold on a second. I don’t know as I saw it as a crime. I don’t know if I viewed it in the context of a crime. Is it a crime?
A.—Are you sure?
Q.—Is wife battery? I’m not sure it was a crime then, in 1983.
A.—Anyway, look, I stand corrected.
Q.—Where do you draw the line in terms of looking at public figures like the president, and what’s private and what is public knowledge? Having sex with however many interns isn’t—you know, two consenting adults. But beating up your wife is a different kind of thing. Somebody is getting hurt. So would it be part of a way of looking at the press’s role in judging public figures?
A.—The problem here is you’re talking about something I didn’t write because I never thought in terms of writing it. I never thought in terms of investigating it more fully. It was presented to me and I did ask and I found some confirmation of at least, as I say, three incidents. I never pursued it in any significant way. I just automatically didn’t think—I didn’t see any connection between that act—those acts. I’m just telling you where I was. I was doing my Kissinger book from ’79 to ’83. And
So, getting back to [Nixon], as a story it would have been a real pain in the ass to write. I would have had to walk over the rights of a lot of people who talked to me. Did I know it was true? Yes. whenever I learned that—sometime in early ’80, I presume, ’81 or 2, I didn’t see it in terms of a story. So it never got to fruition.
We’re now dealing with it as if it was a fact. You know, it was something that I don’t think I could have written based on what I had. In a book there’s a way you can do things like that. I never came close to it.
Q.—But we’re dealing with things now that we don’t know are fact either. Yet everybody is writing about them. So the point is 16,17 years ago, it wouldn’t even occur to you to write this.
A.—It wouldn’t even occur to me. So I didn’t do the work—
Q.—That’s what I’m talking about, is the story.
A.—It’s certainly a story now.
Q.—I wonder if you could expand in your experience about Jack Kennedy. There’s kind of like a steel barrier years later and how protective they are and—
A.—There’s a culture there—Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen still dining out on the Kennedy myth. Why should I believe Arthur Schlesinger or Ted Sorensen on Jack Kennedy any more than H.R. Haldeman on Richard Nixon? There’s no reason. That’s a totally revolutionary thought for most Americans—that Bob Haldeman on Nixon would be no more biased than [Pierre] Salinger. Well, of course he would be. It’s the same thing.
One of the things I got hit real hard on was this story from a guy named Hy Raskin, who was [Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai] Stevenson’s Deputy Campaign Manager. He wrote an unpublished manuscript. Raskin retired in Rancho Mirage, California. 1 met him twice. He wouldn’t let me have the book. He dies and his wife calls me, or I call his wife. I’m not fishing around.
There was no con in this case. But, in general, there’s nothing wonderfully virtuous about our profession. I don’t think anybody thinks there is. We are basically asking a lot of people to act against their best interests most of the time. That’s what we’re doing for a living. We’re not always very direct about what we want, right? I don’t think we have any corner on virtue. No more than a President anyway.[Mrs. Raskin] said, "Look, my husband has this manuscript. Do you want to see it?" And I did. I busted out there and we went to Kinko’s and we copied it. In the manuscript he describes this incredible event during the convention. He’s totally a person of great credibility. I did all the research on him. He’d been very active in the ’52 and ’56 campaign. He’s a big insider. Basically a money man. He would take cash, move lots of cash around. Millions of dollars. He would take cash to—you know, if they were under the spending limit he would get—he’d get a lot of stuff anyway.
And he describes how Lyndon Johnson blackmailed [Kennedy for] the Vice Presidency. I write that story. And I do a lot of work on it. I appropriately make clear this is yet another account. One of the things that’s been a mystery is why did they pick Johnson? It upset a lot of people; it was a great surprise.
The point of all this story is that I then talked to other people about it. 1 used the word "blackmail." And I described the story [that Johnson and There’s a culture there—Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen still dining out on the Kennedy myth. Why should I believe Arthur Schlesinger or Ted Sorensen on Jack Kennedy any more than H.R. Haldeman on Richard Nixon? There’s no reason. That’s a totally revolutionary thought for most Americans—that Bob Haldeman on Nixon would be no more biased than [Pierre] Salinger. Well, of course he would be. It’s the same thing.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn had threatened in Kennedy’s words "to frame me"—presumably by revealing his private sexual life—if Johnson was not selected as the vice-presidential candidate] This is the focal point for an enormous amount of criticism.
Yet [historian Michael] Beschloss found the Raskin story years before me and wrote in his book, "The Crisis Years," a paragraph about the same way I did. He used the exact same language. So he has looked at the same data I did and came down the same way.
All I’m saying is there was a double standard at work. This was something I was particularly hit on. As if it was really reckless. It wasn’t. It was a perfectly rational way of looking at it.
Q.—We have no corner on virtue, as you said, but we’re not seen in public daily using family values, with a wife at our elbow, with Chelsea there. And to me those pictures and that presentation becomes a kind of lie.
Q.—And so that, as a journalist, I don’t understand the resistance to undercutting that lie. They make their personal lives political, and if those personal public lives that are projected to us are lies, we have every obligation and, I think, duty to point that out. So that the wife beating story does become significant with Mrs. Nixon at every podium.
A.—Yeah. But still I would argue with you that in the case of Clinton, the American voters in 1996 knew what they were getting. They weren’t conned. That wasn’t Clinton’s doing. I still don’t think I’d do the beating-Pat story. I just don’t see it. I disagree with you. I’m locked in my own warp. I think he may have hit her, but I don’t think she was a terrified person when she was with him. 1 think she was as tough.
It’s a great year to be here, because it’s fun to be able to be away from Washington, and not to be in it. I know what I would be doing. I would be out there scratching to see if I could get one of those [Independent Prosecutor Kenneth ] Starr guys to give me a tip, and I’d be running it in the paper.
I remember the first time when I proffered a story to the [New York Times] newsroom on what went on in the [Watergate] grand jury. It was April 18th, 1973, and was one of these little pieces, moving the story along. Scotty Reston came up to me, red-faced with anger, and said, "Young man, we do not run stories on the grand jury. It’s a sacred process."
I remember thinking how stupid he was. I was angry at him. The old fart doesn’t know what’s going on. But, in his own wisdom, there was a standard there.
I learned a little bit about the CIA’s assassination plotting in the Kennedy years while working in the Washington Bureau of The New York Times in the early 70’s. Later my editors went to a briefing, without me, where President Ford put the story off limits.
I knew there was a murder component and that they had tried to assassinate people. Abe Rosenthal called me up one day and said, "Keep on working on the murder stuff." And I said, "Of course, I am." About a week later Tom Wicker came to me and said, "They’ve gone to lunch with Gerry Ford." Ford had sworn Abe and Publisher [Arthur O.] Sulzberger to secrecy and told [them] about the assassination [attempts on] Castro. Therefore I couldn’t write the story, and they couldn’t tell me. We didn’t. Somebody else did. So there you go. It was a different world then. Now it would be in print tomorrow, "Ford says this." Secret microphones. We’d have a tape. We’d have a video camera. Inside Edition would have it. That’s the problem right now. It’s all different, and we haven’t figured it out, and we’re learning.