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How to View The Kennedys: A Perspective on the Miniseries

May 16, 2010

Barry Pepper as Robert F Kennedy and Greg Kinnear as John F Kennedy

One of the most memorable scenes occurs after the President is murdered. From Dallas, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson calls Bobby Kennedy, Attorney-General and brother of the slain leader. Bobby has known about the death of the President for only one hour. He is stunned. For his part Johnson is crude and insensitive; he is calling to ask about the mechanics of his swearing-in. In a daze, Bobby can’t even summon up enough energy to be angry. Don Allison looks and sounds like Lyndon Baines Johnson; Barry Pepper has the bottled-up impatience and brittleness of Robert Francis Kennedy.

“Every happy family is happy in the same way, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, wrote Leo Tolstoy. In the family of Joseph and Rose Kennedy – nine children born between 1915 and 1932 – the triumphs and tragedies were intertwined and the world has been fascinated with every new revelation.

Tom Wilkinson as the patriach Joe Kennedy Snr

“I never knew the Depression” said President John F Kennedy to a journalist. He had been 12 when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed in 1929. After, his stockbroker father was still so rich he could buy a mansion in Palm Beach and a house at Hyannisport. Happy family.

In 1944 Joe Jnr, the eldest son, was killed in a plane explosion over the English Channel. He had been the cynosure of doting parents, a son who’s father was intent on making himAmerica’s first Catholic President. In 1948 daughter Kathleen died in a plane crash over Europe. Another daughter, Rosemary was sitting in an asylum, a vegetable. Mentally retarded, she had been lobotomised in crude psychosurgery approved by her father.

Wretchedly sick with Addison’s disease and other complications, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the nation’s youngest elected President in 1960 (Teddy Roosevelt was younger when he succeeded the murdered McKinley in 1901). John recruited his brother Bobby as his Attorney General. A vindication for a family descended from the Boston Irish. Yet both boys were to be murdered, a story cruel, savage, pre-modern.

In January this year, the History Channel announced it would not run this series, reportedly as a result of pressure from the Kennedy family. This shows a touching but uncharacteristic delicacy. The History Channel has run programs on extraterrestrials, Jack the Ripper, Eva Braun and the Shroud of Turin. A biography of Hitler’s Alsatian Blondie is apparently in preparation.

One can say of this series, produced by Joel Surnow, that its script is mediocre and acting somewhat mixed. It does not, however, always take the most negative interpretation of Jack and his presidency. For example, it does not indulge the notion that surfaced in an article in 2006 that the Kennedys had played a role in the suicide of Marilyn Monroe. Helped her suicide? How, you might ask? By working with her psychiatrist to guarantee she had access to a big jar of sleeping pills, according to this sensational concoction. That story was reported in serious papers, on the authority of a single, former, insignificant FBI agent. Indeed any stray or drifter who ever had a short-term job with the FBI or the CIA gets to become an authority on the Kennedys and the assassinations.

So the miniseries doesn’t veer into the wilder speculations like this one. But it does dramatise conflicts and arguments within the sprawling family, generally with some degree of credibility, for example, the tension between old Joe and Robert Kennedy in the management of the 1960 election. It was, incidentally, one of the closest outcomes in US presidential history. (Garfield v Hancock in 1880 was closer in terms of popular vote, and Wilson v Hughes in 1916 was closer in terms of the electoral college).

Episode 2 - The Kennedys

The Kennedy brothers during the drawn-out count in the 1960 election (Episode 2)

There’s not a bad attempt at dramatising the tension of election day, 1960, when, in Hyannisport, Joe anxiously makes phone calls to party bosses Mayor Daley of Chicago and Mayor Wagner of New York; inquires about buses in New Jersey to get voters to the polls; and pursues union organisers in Nevada to keep mobilising their members. All credible, but an incursion on Bobby’s role as his brother’s campaign director. We see Joe heartlessly over-riding Bobby, before the two become reconciled.

We hear Rose state, “The older boys are Joe’s, Bobby’s mine.” In flashbacks to the 1930s there is even tension and rivalry between John and his older, doomed brother Joe.

And we see Rose suffering old Joe’s still-smouldering libido. All the above is defensible in terms of the historic record, but to my knowledge there is no evidence to support the little drama, after Joe’s stroke, when Rose ceases to be the all-suffering Catholic mother, telling her speechless crippled husband that she has sacked his young nurse with whom he had apparently enjoyed a dalliance. The stroke-ridden Joe scribbles out the word “Revenge.” Rose looks at it, then back at him and says, “Not mine, Joe. God’s.”

Might have happened – dramatic licence – but no evidence.

Rose Kennedy (Diana Hardcastle) by Joe's bedside after his stroke

The Kennedy story is extraordinary enough. Yes, JFK as President did have sex with Judith Campbell Exner at the same time as she served as mistress to Sam Giancana,America’s biggest mafia boss. The head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, did bring the evidence to his boss the Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy. The president did see Washington socialite and artist Mary Meyer on about 30 occasions, and she may have brought marijuana and LSD into the White House, something the CIA probably learned about.

By the way, Meyer is seen in this series as a guest at a White House but not in the President’s bed smoking marijuana or playing with LSD, as it seems she was in real life. This is an example of The Kennedys pulling its punches, stopping short of the worst interpretation. After the President’s assassination Mary Meyer herself was murdered, quite possibly by the agency. I write that as someone normally disinclined to the conspiratorial.

The President was chronically ill and Dr. Max Jacobson (“Dr. Feelgood”) a society doctor from New York, administered drugs to him and Jackie. When Robert Kennedy questioned the medicine – amphetamines – the President responded, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.” We know this from other sources; we see it on the screen. In fact, the series might have gone further and dramatised the fact that after his Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev the President was so sick he was in bed for a full two weeks, although this was unknown to the media. He spent half of his life sick in bed, according to one estimate.

On the eve of JFK’s inauguration

Liberal Americans have criticised the miniseries for inaccuracies. One criticism was that the President is shown saying to his brother Robert that he gets migraines if he doesn’t sleep with new women on a regular basis. There is no evidence he said it to his brother. To that extent the criticism is right. But he did say to a British Prime Minster: “If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.” Harold Macmillan related it to colleagues, quite amused.

I doubt the portrayal of old Joe Kennedy is fundamentally unfair. He is presented as a casual bigot and racist, capable of making references to Polacks, Jewboys and Micks; and as Ambassador to the United Kingdom not just an appeaser but almost pro-Nazi.

Katie Holmes as Jackie O. Kennedy

Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy

In a scene with Rose after his oldest son’s death, Joe is shown coming close to throwing a crucifix, saying he’ll never accept faith again. It appears to be made up. In fact an earlier version of the script had him hurling it against the wall where it broke. No evidence of this. Perhaps, though, a credible dramatisation. The series shows Joe drinking alcohol, but there is evidence he took the pledge in his teens and was a lifelong teetotaller.

The script’s serious liberties are with the area of Joe’s relations with the crime boss Sam Giancana and singer Frank Sinatra. It shows Joe working to get mob support for his son in Chicago wards apparently controlled by Giancana. The script is heavily based on Seymour Hersh’s hatchet job The Dark Side of Camelot (1997). There is a different view in the Michael O’Brian’s 2005 biography, which argues there is no evidence of campaign activity by Giancana to elect Kennedy; further, that Giancana controlled only two wards and these in fact produced low votes for the Democratic ticket compared to the other Democratic wards.

This is important: it would have meant John Kennedy and his father had no obligations to the mob. This suggests in turn that a meeting shown in the miniseries involving Giancana and Joe at the Trocadero Tavern, allegedly arranged by Frank Sinatra to get mob support for Jack, is wholly fictitious. Also fictional are the following mafia related plot lines: Joe on the phone with Bobby learning that the Attorney-General’s Department is not going after the “little fish” but Giancana instead; Joe in a church trying to get a former FBI agent to help him out of his mobster entanglements; and Joe calling Sinatra and telling him he is no longer a friend of the Kennedy family.

Another liberty the script takes with history is Joe offering Jackie a million dollars in the 1950s to not separate from Jack. This is gossip congealing as speculation: there is no evidence it ever happened.

It is true that Kennedy as President ran up against the dark side of American power: a shockingly compromised CIA, an FBI in the grip of J Edgar Hoover, Joint Chiefs of Staff who were capable of blundering into war with Russia. To me there is no way Kennedy’s leadership during the Cold War can be criticised. One can argue credibly he and his brother stopped a nuclear exchange in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. That should outweigh, even for puritans, any character failings. Saving the world is good enough. All else gives way before this.

Having seen war, Kennedy was viscerally anti-war, confiding once, “I am almost a ‘peace-at-any-price’ President.” His greatest though perhaps most neglected speech was the so-called Peace Speech given at American University in June 1963 proposing an end to the Cold War. His proudest legislative achievement was the Limited Test Ban treaty of 1963, the first arms control agreement between East and West. He resisted pressure from the big brass to escalate the Bay of Pigs, saying, “We’re not going to plunge into an irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in this country puts so-called national pride above national reason.” Acutely understood and beautifully put. There is some (limited) evidence he had given up on Vietnam and in his second term may have pulled out.

J Edgar Hoover (Enrico Colantoni) confronts Attorney-General RFK (Barry Pepper)

This John F. Kennedy is only hinted at in the miniseries. And sometimes buried by the private life revelations, even when they are valid.

I visited Dallas and looked down from the Sixth Floor Museum on Dealey Plaza from the window Oswald had used. There is an X on Elm Street where the President was slain. I thought of the big thing we owed Jack and his brother: the keeping of the peace when the world trembled on the edge of a nuclear exchange. And – throwing in another achievement – his support for black civil rights across the South. Belated, but an historic shift nonetheless.

This makes him bigger than this series – maybe any TV series – can render him and, from our perspective, more – and not less – a hero than he appeared in his own times.

Watch the series. Think on the above. Read further. Visit the graves at Arlington and pause with the respect due a peace-maker and his brother.

  1. Joel permalink
    May 16, 2011 8:35 pm

    Bob, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the assassination of Kennedy. Do you subscribe to Lee Harvey Oswald as being the lone gunman, or do you believe there were far more sinister elements involved?

  2. Bob Carr permalink
    May 16, 2011 10:13 pm

    Give me time to give you a thought-out response. Working on an article now. Every reason to believe a full-blown conspiracy but no evidence of one, no smoking gun. Case Closed is a sound book on the subject as is a book called Brothers.

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