Gene Healy, author of The Cult of the Presidency—America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, suggests: “In an age when Americans periodically swoon for imperial presidents, a little sacred cow-tipping would be a public service.” The made-for-television mini-series, The Kennedys, recently airing on ReelzChannel is a case in point.
Unceremoniously cancelled earlier this year by The History Channel as not a good “fit” for “the History brand,” the project was controversial almost from its inception. This had to do completely with the hypersensitivity of a vast array of myth-guardians who stand perpetual watch over the Kennedy family, as well as the career and legacy of America’s 35th President. And these members of the Camelot cabal pretty much wrote the book on branding.
I have long been a student of the Kennedy era and I wrote a Master’s thesis on it many years ago while working on my political science degree. And frankly, I have yet to see a scenario or fact presented in the broadcast that has not appeared in the history available at any public library or bookstore. I find myself wondering why the fuss?
The John F. Kennedy portrayed in this new series is a real life character—warts and all. Greg Kinnear does an admirable job with the JFK persona, as does Katie Holmes with Jackie Kennedy. Is it all flattering? Certainly not. But JFK comes off as a much more sympathetic character in this current portrayal than might have been expected after hearing all the advance hype and horror. In fact, in my opinion the production spends a tortured amount of time showing him as a man much more “conflicted” about the flaws, now well known, than he really was.
I can’t for the life of me see why The History Channel blackballed the miniseries, when they regularly show things like Monster Quest, Swamp People, and Clash of the Cavemen. You know, real serious history stuff. Not to mention the fact, that the network regularly peddles speculative conspiracy theories, from novelist Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, to several programs dealing with various theories on—ironically—the Kennedy assassination.
Of course, there was a very real conspiracy behind The History Channel’s decision to dump the miniseries. It doesn’t take Glenn Beck’s blackboard to connect those dots. But after watching The Kennedys, I am completely at a loss to figure out why anyone seriously found the material objectionable. The broadcast broke no new ground.
Likely, the keepers of the fictional Camelot flame simply didn’t want another reminder of the vast disconnect between calculated and conjured myth in the wake of Mr. Kennedy’s tragic death and actual reality. Whether one reads a good book about the Kennedy years or watches The Kennedys on ReelzChannel, one thing is clear—there were potential ethical and moral time bombs threatening his presidency. And there is a credible case to be made that had Kennedy lived beyond that fateful fall day in 1963, and had he managed to be reelected in 1964 (not at all a sure thing), he may not have survived a second term, politically.
That’s right. As Hugh Sidey suggested before his death in 2005—the same Hugh Sidey, who as an editor at Time Magazine during the Kennedy years, was also a Camelot insider—JFK’s various and sundry moral, ethical, and judgmental, pecadillos might very well have led to his actual impeachment.
The Kennedy administration could very well have been on the road to its own kind of Watergate.
From the improper use of the FBI in surveillance and investigation in matters not at all related to national security, to misuse of the Secret Service, to his affair with a mistress of a major crime boss, with its obvious compromises, Mr. Kennedy played by his own rules against the backdrop of the last gasp of an age of media mercy. He lived on the edge, from his monumental sexual addiction, to his experimentation with illicit drugs, to his dependence on substances that, while not illegal, were questionable—John F. Kennedy’s time was running out. People were always covering for him and clearly many still are.
But was it only a matter of time before someone broke rank?
If Watergate taught us anything, it was that it is hard to keep a lid on a big story—even in the White House. Had John F. Kennedy lived and had his shortcomings been investigated and written with Woodward-Bernstein-like passion, it is not far-fetched that he may not have been reelected in 1964. And if he did manage to win that race, and investigators did their jobs, JFK might very well have been impeached or pressured to resign.
Then again, that may be fantasy, because it was unlikely that Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post in those days, and an inbred Kennedy crony, would have allowed any such story to go forward. At any rate, it all went away that sad November day and we are left with a legend that does history, not to mention the American people, a disservice.
And because what could have been a major broadcasting event has been dispatched to cable television’s backwater, it seems that the cover-up continues.
That “brief and shining moment” that never really was, lives on.