Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
ON JANUARY 17, the New York Times ran a story about The Kennedys, the eight-part miniseries that the History Channel had mysteriously decided not to air — after spending a reported $15 million on its production. The Times had been running articles on the miniseries for a year, detailing — and to a significant degree, stoking — the controversy swirling around the project. But as I read reporter Dave Itzkoff’s story “Dramatizing Camelot,” I began to suspect that it had very little to do with The Kennedys and quite a lot to do with the Kennedys.
The History Channel, Itzkoff reported, had spiked the drama “after an unsuccessful yearlong effort to bring the miniseries in line with the historical record.” Unnamed sources described The Kennedys as inaccurate and sordid. Soon the show would be painted as a right-wing hatchet job — co-created, as it was, by Joel Surnow, one of Hollywood’s most prominent conservatives. (There’s not a lot of competition.) Surnow is buddies with Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, and Ann Coulter, and his most famous work, the long-running drama 24, depicted torture as an effective antiterrorism tool. Now, according to an emerging narrative, his new show was out to take down America’s most iconic liberal family.
A few weeks later, I managed to get an advance copy of The Kennedys, and what I watched was no conservative hit job. Yes, the miniseries presented patriarch Joseph Kennedy, the main character, as massively ambitious, philandering, a bit corrupt, and a Hitler sympathizer — but it also detailed his deep devotion to his sons, and the almost unbearable pain he suffered from the tragedies that befell them. It wasn’t a flattering portrayal, but it was certainly a defensible one. Add in the depiction of JFK as a man whose idealism was blended with more base desires, and what you had were characters that seemed influenced more by Oprah Winfrey than Rush Limbaugh.
I was starting to get the feeling that the story in the Times had actually been part of a smear campaign, something planted by anonymous sources who didn’t want the show to ever see the light of day. And that felt like a story I knew firsthand.
A little more than 10 years ago, I decided to write a book about John F. Kennedy Jr., my boss at the political magazine George. I admired John, and wanted to write something that would reflect that. But within weeks, sleazy, false, and untraceable rumors started popping up in mainstream media outlets, while behind-closed-door efforts were launched to sabotage a book that hadn’t even been written. Within months, both my career and my reputation were in tatters.
I’ve never talked much about that time in my life; it’s a hard story to tell, and I don’t like to discuss it. But reading about the miniseries made me think that the time had come. I wanted to know: What happened to The Kennedys, and was it the same thing that had happened to me?