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.

  • Dave

    Excellent piece, Richard.

    I am proud to say that I was a George subscriber since day one. I thought the magazine you and John created was fresh, exciting, and way ahead of its time.

    I miss George and wish we had a magazine like that today. Often wonder what kind of coverage George would have given our post-9/11 world.

    Hope you are well. Thanks for this article and keep up the good work!

  • Joyce

    I WAS 16 YRS OLD DURING THE BAY OF PIGS. AT THE TIME, I THOUGHT JFK WAS ODIOUS>. TODAY, I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR HIM. I FOUND THE MINI-SERIES TO HAVE OFFERED A COMPLES AND SYMPATHETIC PORTRAYAL OF ALL THE MEMBERS OF THE FAMILY, SEPECIALLY JOE, ROSE, AND ETHEL. I FELL IN LOVE , ALL OVER AGAIN, WITH JACKIE. AND I THINK KINNEAR CAPTURED EXACTLY THE ESSENCE OF JFK, THOUGHTFUL ENERGETIC, A CREDIT TO HIS COUNTRY. THEY WERE BOTH SO FULL OF HOPE AND PROMISE AS I ARRIVED IN DALLAS. OUR WORLD CHANGED IN 2 SHORT HRS. I BELIEVE THIS FILM WOULD BE OUTSTANDING FOR YOUNG PEOPLE TO SEE SO THEY COULD SEE WHAT A PRESIDENT OF PRINCIPLE IS REALLY LIKE. WE HAVE NOT HAD ONE IN A LONG TIME!!

  • Robbins

    Why would anybody expect anything else from this bunch?….here in flyover country,we don’t see Nazi Joe’s brood as ‘royalty’…we see them as ‘Anerica’s Mick dog$h!t’..and they have acted accordingly for the last half century or so

  • JeffW

    I thought the series was excellent,a good historical peek into the Kennedys.

  • Judy

    Run the series!! Thanks for a great artical! I will never understand the “powerful and infulencueal” people in charge think Americans can’t handle the truth! Big deal Jackie smoked! Or JFK ran around, and had a potty mouth….So What! He’s still bigger than life and we still love them! They were our First Family and nothing can change that.