The History Channel's JFK miniseries: Is it really right-wing character assassination?
For the past week, liberals everywhere have been up in arms over the horrifying prospect of a new History Channel miniseries about John F. Kennedy hatched from the brain of Joel Surnow, a creator of Fox's hit TV series "24" and an ardent political conservative who smokes cigars with Rush Limbaugh and whose political point of view is best expressed by his favorite bumper sticker, which reads "Except for Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism and Communism, War Has Never Solved Anything." The furor was fueled by a front-page story in the New York Times last week that cited criticism of the proposed miniseries, titled "The Kennedys," by a variety of historians who'd read an early version of the four-part series' scripts.
Robert Greenwald, a prominent left-wing documentarian, has been leading the charge against the project, putting up a video with various historians critiques of the film on his website. He has also been asking viewers to sign a petition telling the History Channel that they will "refuse to watch right-wing character assassination masquerading as 'history.' " Theodore Sorensen, the revered former Kennedy adviser, was particularly outspoken, saying in a video commentary that "every single conversation with the president in the Oval Office or elsewhere in which I, according to the script, participated, never happened."
I took the time over the weekend to read the scripts for the proposed four-part "Kennedys" series (set to air in January 2011), and even though I'm a liberal, I have to say that Surnow and his writing team have been unfairly demonized as political hatchet men largely because of Surnow's well-known reputation as a political conservative. In fact, if you didn't know Surnow was involved with the project, you'd be hard-pressed, after reading the script, to say it had any serious political agenda at all.
Nevertheless, the miniseries has created quite a hubbub, not to mention yet another example of how the hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed Washington has invaded the world of entertainment, where liberals gleefully mock Glenn Beck and conservatives regularly bash any movie that questions the excesses of the war on terrorism. After reading the various complaints about the series' particulars -- it depicts Kennedy as an unrepentant sex hound while having the Kennedys doing exit polling during the 1960 presidential election (which was long before exit polling had been invented) -- I was overcome by a powerful sense of deja vu. It sounded exactly like the uproar in conservative circles when it was first announced that the wild-eyed, Fidel Castro admiring, peyote popping Oliver Stone would be filming "W.," a biopic about George W. Bush.
In case anyone has forgotten, conservatives boldly predicted that Stone would reduce Bush to a cartoonish warmonger when, in fact, if you bothered to see the final film, you'd have to say that while hardly an admiring portrait, it wasn't anywhere as contemptuous of Bush and his inner circle as most early Stone critics had feared. In fact, truth be told, it was pretty uninspired stuff, perhaps because Stone felt the need to pull some punches for fear of being viewed as a knee-jerk Bush hater.
Surnow's take on JFK certainly qualifies as revisionist history, but when it comes to the Kennedys, the days of Camelot are long gone -- we've been treated to revisionist takes on the family for nearly two decades. JFK is portrayed as a skirt chaser supreme, but is this really news in 2010, especially for anyone who read "JFK: Reckless Youth," Nigel Hamilton's superb biographical portrait of Kennedy's early years? (Or who saw the 1993 ABC miniseries based on the book, which showed JFK visiting a whorehouse and, after being hospitalized for an exotic ailment, having spirited sex with a pretty young lass in the hospital morgue?)
"The Kennedys" script portrays JFK as shrewd, brash, vulnerable, wryly funny and most of all, eager to escape the iron grip of his father, Joe Kennedy. If anyone comes out looking bad in the Surnow series, it's Joe Sr., the indomitable patriarch of the Kennedy clan. It is Joe Sr. who pressures JFK to enter politics after his older brother Joe Jr.'s death in a plane crash and then insists, to ensure his electability, that he get married, saying that he can still fool around, reminding him that Warren Harding "kept his wife in the White House and stashed the girls on K Street."
If the writers take liberties, it seems most likely that they've stretched the truth with Joe Sr., who if we are to believe their script, is a crass, Archie Bunker-style bigot who regularly fondles his secretary's breasts and calls Jews "kikes," Italians "wops" and refers to Sammy Davis Jr. as a "one-eyed spook." Joe Sr. also offers Jackie a $1-million trust fund in return for keeping quiet about her husband's obvious infidelities and cuts a deal with mobster Sam Giancana, assuring him that if he helps deliver the Italian Catholic vote in the 1960 election he won't ever have to worry about any Justice Department or IRS scrutiny from a Kennedy administration.
Is any of that true? I'm skeptical, but the miniseries is clearly written as broad entertainment, so for me, the depiction of Joe's behavior feels like justifiable dramatic license, designed to show to what lengths the fanatical father would go to further the family dynasty. In one of the scripts' breeziest nuggets of dialogue, when Jack and Bobby leave a room after being subjected to one of their father's pre-election tirades, Jack tells his brother: "If we do get in, standing up to the Russians'll be easy."
After all, what sort of standard should "The Kennedys" be subjected to? Keep reading:
Greenwald blasted the film for being full of "sexist titillation and pandering," but wouldn't that be an equally accurate description of Oliver Stone's "JFK," which many critics, especially in the gay community, felt was teeming with much the same kind of sexual titillation, pandering and cheesy soap opera, not to mention questionable history?
When I spoke to Greenwald on Sunday, he insisted that his complaints weren't focused on the involvement of Surnow in the project but on the merits of the script. "I don't carry around a blacklist in my back pocket," he told me. "But if you carry around a political point of view in your DNA, then I think you have to label the project as a right-wing attack on Kennedy. This series isn't any more fair and balanced than Fox News. It's full of unsubstantiated scenes and just makes stuff up, like the scene where Kennedy says he has to get laid every night or he'll go crazy. That's just meant to undermine Kennedy's whole career."
I told Greenwald that I found it hard to believe that anyone would be shocked to hear that Kennedy was something of a sex addict -- after all, it was Hamilton, one of the historians who criticized the scripts, who said in his book that JFK had sex with an actress on the night of his Inauguration. Greenwald countered: "The scores and scores of sex scenes are really offensive and beyond the bounds of any political attack. It demeans the man and the presidency. The script has room for tons of sex scenes, but doesn't even mention the Cuban missile crisis." (The version of the script that I read ends in September 1962, which would be a full month before the missile crisis erupted.)
Greenwald contends that a movie airing on the History Channel should be held to a higher standard of accuracy than a project slated for NBC or Showtime. "If it was showing anywhere else, this would be different, but if it's on the History Channel, well, you expect it to be history, not a work of political propaganda."
Unfortunately, the History Channel is hardly a shining beacon of weighty discourse and objectivity. This week, for example, as part of its ongoing series "The Nostradamus Effect," the channel is airing something called "Hitler's Blood Oath," which examines whether Hitler was the third anti-Christ as predicted by Nostradamus. If that qualifies as history, then Surnow's "The Kennedys" is well within the acceptable range of fair inquiry.
After all, history isn't a crumbling Dead Sea scroll. It is living and breathing, always subject to new interpretation. No one has done a better job of capturing the visceral, populist anger of today's Tea Party movement than the historian Richard Hofstadter, who back in 1965 wrote "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which was aimed at understanding the anti-intellectualism of the 1950s Red Scare, but turns out to have cannily captured the hysteria at the root of today's disaffected Tea Party activists.
I'm not saying that "The Kennedy's" is a great work of art. But it doesn't feel like a hit job either. And after seeing dozens upon dozens of recent films and documentaries that have dissected the war in Iraq, exposed secret CIA torture and delved into other political causes, all made by filmmakers with impeccable liberal credentials, I don't think think it would be the end of the world to be subjected to one lone miniseries made by someone from the right side of the political dial.
If it turns out that Surnow and his writers have really taken extraordinary liberties with the facts, they will have to take their lumps. But after watching so many conservatives look so silly ridiculing Sean Penn or George Clooney movies just because they don't like the stars' politics, I'd hate to see liberals engage in an ad hominem attack of "The Kennedys" just because its producer is one of Rush Limbaugh's buddies. That's guilt by association, which whether it comes from the left or the right is a pretty lousy way to judge whether something is fair-minded entertainment.
Photo of John F. Kennedy from the Los Angeles Times; (from left to right) Robert, Edward and John Kennedy from the Associated Press