Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
Scholar Robert Dallek was also enlisted by History. Dallek knew the Kennedy family well: He could not have written his well-reviewed 2003 book, An Unfinished Life, had the Kennedys not granted him unprecedented access to JFK’s medical records. (As Times reviewer Ted Widmer put it, Dallek “received permission from the family’s praetorian guard.”) What had taken so long? Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves once wrote in the Times that the public didn’t know about the president’s illnesses because the custodians of his memory didn’t want them to; after the assassination, “The family and the men who had served him continued the lying and began the destruction, censoring and hiding of Kennedy’s medical records.”
But with access no one else had ever enjoyed, Dallek documented that JFK’s health problems were far more debilitating than previously understood. Due to a litany of ailments, Kennedy had three times been given his last rites, and there was ample cause to wonder whether, had there been no Dallas, he would have died young of natural causes.
An Unfinished Life would also be a major influence on Surnow and Kronish’s portrayal of JFK. Their president is constantly popping pills, suffering injections, and grimacing from chronic pain. For people who don’t know of Dallek’s book, the portrayal could well be revelatory — a fact that applies to many of the incidents presented throughout The Kennedys, which can appear tawdry not because it makes facts up, but because it aggregates so many of the secrets that historians have unearthed about the family.
Neither Dallek nor Gillon would be interviewed for this article. Dallek didn’t respond to several e-mails, and Gillon wrote back only to say, “The story that you are writing is timely and important. Unfortunately, I will not be able to discuss with you anything about my role in the miniseries.” But three sources with firsthand knowledge of the process say that both historians did sign off on the final scripts. Surnow says he even has e-mails from Gillon vouching for the accuracy of each episode. “We went through draft after draft until we got every script approved,” he told me. “Steve Gillon signed off on all the scripts.” Said Kronish, “We would not have been able to film these episodes had the scripts not been signed off on.”
The Kennedys was shot over 72 days in the summer, and then in the fall was edited and went into postproduction. Executives from History closely tracked its progress, watching dailies and visiting the sets — this high-profile miniseries was, after all, a first for them, and they were taking no chances. The show was scheduled to premiere in the spring.
At the same time, though, below-the-surface efforts to torpedo the miniseries were becoming more urgent — and more effective.
FOR A WHILE, my editor at Little, Brown, Sarah Crichton, fended off the assaults against both American Son and me. In the weeks after she’d verbally agreed to buy my book — in publishing, you get a handshake and then the contract is drawn up — she supported me both publicly and privately. But as the pressure mounted, she eventually stopped taking and returning my phone calls. I was being held at arm’s length.
Adding to my troubles, I had a vulnerability: Like most of the employees at George, I had signed a confidentiality form — drafted by John’s college friend Gary Ginsberg — in which I had agreed not to write about John Kennedy. Did that agreement survive John’s death? No one had even thought about it until now. Out of both principle and self-interest, I argued that it did not.