Jack Kennedy was shot on my twentieth birthday.
I was a Dartmouth student, getting ready to drive down to Skidmore to celebrate with my girlfriend, when the news ricocheted around the dormitory. I went down to Skidmore anyway, spending the weekend in a Saratoga Springs motel room, watching the TV coverage, including that astonishing moment when Ruby shot Oswald in front of our eyes in living black and white.
Does this mean I have more insight than others into the Kennedy assassination? No. But that coincidence did give me an extra frisson when the date “November 22, 1963” was superimposed at the beginning of Episode 7 of the new The Kennedys miniseries.
I spent the last couple of days watching all eight episodes of the series, courtesy of the production company. It was certainly a trip down memory lane. Like so many of my generation, my life had intersected with the Kennedys in the world of political imagination and sometimes even in reality.
I had been in the audience, close enough to shake his hand, for an East L.A. speech of Bobby’s two days before he was shot, the largely Chicano and Mexican crowd yelling “Viva! Viva!” as if the California primary voters were about to elect him dictator, not president.
And then, a few years later, I had a literary agent who, it turned out, was one of the six young women at that Chappaquiddick reunion party for RFK’s campaign the fateful night Ted Kennedy took his chauffeur’s car keys to drive the late Mary Jo Kopechne home himself. The agent never spoke of what happened. (This hugely dramatic incident does not appear in the series, nor is there even a mention of Ted Kennedy. More on this later.)
So what did I think of the miniseries? No one could mistake it for Citizen Kane — television political biopics tend to the humdrum and stilted, as most of us know — but it is nowhere near as bad as the fulminating critics would have us believe. Their major objection seems to be that the series emphasizes the soap opera aspects of the Kennedy lives — Jack’s parade of women that would make Bill Clinton envious, his and Jackie’s amphetamine cocktails from “Dr. Feelgood,” the Mafia connections via Giancana, Sinatra, and Judith Exner, Joe Sr.’s having his troubled daughter (Jack’s younger sister) lobotomized, not to mention the patriarch’s infamous flirtation with the Third Reich, etc.
Well, why not? These things are the stuff of drama (cf. the House of Atreus), not endless discussions of policy. The latter are much better handled in a book. But never mind. When the early drafts of the screenplay leaked out, JFK’s speechwriter, the late Ted Sorenson — among several others — joined a campaign organized by filmmaker Robert Greenwald aimed at preventing the film from being made and attacking it as a right-wing hit piece led by that known conservative attack dog Joel Surnow of 24 fame.
But here’s the surprising thing — and I should put this in bold because it is the linchpin of this article — The Kennedys (made by right-wingers though it may be) is tremendously respectful of JFK as a president. Indeed, the JFK it portrays is arguably one of the best presidents of the post-war period, if not of all time.
In the three key events dramatized in the series — his taking personal blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, his steadfastness in supporting racial integration at the University of Mississippi and, of course, his resolute behavior in confrontation with Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis — the Jack Kennedy of The Kennedys is a superlative and courageous decision maker.
This makes the miniseries — unlike the fuddy-duddy Greenwald site — oddly modern and heroic and pro-JFK. The Kennedys filmmakers have respected their audience and allowed them to reflect on the fascinating question of how someone so lacking in his personal life could achieve so much good in his public life. (Missing from this film is another positive action with a contemporary twist — JFK’s cutting of tax rates to stimulate the economy.)
That question — the relationship of doer and deed — is as old as drama. Shakespeare reveled in it. Nevertheless, as many of you know, the series was rejected by the channel for which it was originally made, the History Channel. It was eventually sold and is now showing on the lesser-known Reelz.