Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
From legal threats to smear campaigns, America’s most famous family will do whatever is necessary to shut down any media portrayal it objects to. Just look at what happened to the controversial miniseries dumped by the Kennedy Channel. Or to the book I wrote a decade ago.
At the beginning of 2010, Robert Greenwald — furious about the History Channel script for The Kennedys he’d gotten his hands on — kicked into action. Not one to let a perceived injustice go unaddressed, the documentarian created a website, stopkennedysmears.com, that asked visitors to sign a petition: “Tell the History Channel: Right-wing propaganda is not ‘history.’”
The site featured video of several historians as well as former Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen (since deceased) blasting the script Greenwald had sent them. “Any network that puts this [series] on had better triple their legal staff, because there are relatives and survivors of some of these people and I think there will be hell to pay,” Sorensen warned. (Years before, Sorensen had played much the same role, denouncing acclaimed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s JFK book The Dark Side of Camelot as “a pathetic collection of wild stories.”)
Meanwhile, the communications director at Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation began pushing the story to Dave Itzkoff at the Times. In a February 2010 piece headlined “Even Before Filming, Kennedy Series Stirs Anger,” Itzkoff wrote that the miniseries “has prominent critics who want it brought to a halt.” At the time, the network was months away from shooting, and the script in question was an early, unvetted draft. Series co-creator Stephen Kronish recalls telling Itzkoff that criticizing that draft would be “like me taking you to task for a story you have yet to write based on my having seen your notes.”
Still, Greenwald was pleased. “In a very short time,” he told me, “we had 50,000 people signing the petition and a front-page story in the New York Times.”
I asked the filmmaker what made him so sure that The Kennedys was politically motivated. “There are ways to do sexy, salacious things that are not political,” he told me, “but the DNA of this is to suggest that all Kennedy motivation was driven by power or sex. That’s political. That is essentially a takedown of anything of value, and I believe the intent was conscious. Joel [Surnow] is not a stupid guy.”
Inside the History Channel, however, the Times article produced frustration. One source familiar with the goings-on at History told me there had never been any discussion of choosing Joel Surnow because of his politics, nor any interest in trashing the Kennedys — who, after all, are a mainstay of the network’s programming. The Itzkoff article “was a hit job,” the source said. (Fearing professional damage, many of the people I spoke with for this article wished to remain anonymous.) “Someone got to the New York Times.” (Itzkoff declined to be interviewed for this article.)
John F. Kennedy Jr., my former boss, was of two minds regarding his family’s history. While he had obvious respect for both of his parents, he felt encumbered by the family mythology, and occasionally liked to tweak it. Thus, John would commission a George cover featuring Drew Barrymore costumed as his father’s alleged paramour, Marilyn Monroe. It was his way of showing an independence from the family iconography — and saying to the public, Don’t take this stuff too seriously.
At the same time, John liked to be the one in charge of fashioning history. One day I had to deliver to him the news that Nina Burleigh, one of our reporters, was starting a biography of Washington socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer, another alleged JFK mistress. John’s face clouded over, and he informed me that George would no longer publish Nina’s work.
John’s sister, Caroline Kennedy, has taken a different tack: publicly promoting the kinder, gentler, arguably more feminine side of her family’s history, while privately waging campaigns to block history that conflicts with the image she’s pushing. With Hyperion Books, a division of Disney/ABC, she has authored or sanctioned the publication of half a dozen Kennedy-related books: A Family Christmas, in 2007; Profiles in Courage for Our Time, in 2002; The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in 2001; and so on. All of them have made the Times bestseller list — the book of Jackie O’s favorite poetry sold about 500,000 copies in its first year — but their success is more a testament to the enduring power of the family brand than to the quality of the books, which is slender. In January 2009 the Times called Caroline “a publishing industry phenomenon” who put out books that “tapped into the public’s admiration for, and curiosity about, her famous family.”
Caroline has recently been on a nationwide tour promoting She Walks in Beauty, a collection of poems that correspond to milestones in women’s lives. There are probably about two women in this country with a publisher who’d send them around to promote a book of poems, and neither of them are poets. But when it’s on her terms, Caroline Kennedy sells.
Plus, Hyperion is something of a Kennedy family press. Bobby Kennedy Jr. has coauthored a number of children’s books for the house, called Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s American Heroes. He was also the author of a 2005 book called Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy. Maria Shriver writes for Hyperion, too, including 2008’s We Empower: Inspirational Wisdom from Inspirational Women. Even Shriver’s daughter, Katherine Schwarzenegger, has gotten into the family business with Hyperion: Last September the 20-year-old college student published a self-esteem manual for girls, Rock What You’ve Got: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty from Someone Who’s Been There and Back.
But while Caroline Kennedy has cultivated an image of her family as poetry-loving patriots nestling in highbrow domesticity, she has also earned a reputation in the publishing world for striking out against books that show a less warm and fuzzy side of the Kennedys — as I would find out.
Salon writer Craig Offman’s distorted presentation of my book proposal made some of my former colleagues at George anxious and angry. They felt I was seeking to exploit my relationship with John. It was certainly a legitimate concern: Whether it was ethical to write the book was something that I myself had seriously debated. Now Offman’s reporting was casting my decision in the worst possible light. Even so, I was taken aback by how quickly the conversation deteriorated.
The weeks ahead brought a barrage of criticism and caricature, almost all of it anonymous. I spoke in a “stiff-jawed Groton drawl,” a New York Observer writer declared, referring to the boarding school I attended. (I had a speech impediment as a child; subsequent therapy shaped my vocalization.) An MSNBC.com gossip columnist had me writing the book because I was unemployed and broke; she never bothered to ask me if that was true, probably because she knew it wasn’t. Some stories claimed that I had fired George staffers for speaking to the press (not true). There were also suggestions that I was a latent homosexual who’d always lusted after John (also false). One anonymous ex-colleague compared me to the psychotic, sexually depraved “talented Mr. Ripley” of Patricia Highsmith’s novel.
Whatever the motives of my critics, their techniques were blunt: full-tilt attempts to discredit my book via character assassination. I had certainly expected disagreement. But I was naively unprepared for such ugliness.
“You can’t believe the calls I’m getting,” Little, Brown publisher Sarah Crichton told me and my agent, Joni Evans. Crichton said she’d been warned that she had been fooled by a greedy trickster. If she published my book, she and Little, Brown would look like fools.
Some of the stern conversations, Crichton told me, were with Esther Newberg and Gary Ginsberg, two confidants of Caroline Kennedy. The two exemplify the kind of standard-bearer on which this generation of Kennedys relies. Newberg, an executive vice president at International Creative Management, is Caroline’s literary agent. She earned her entrée to the family as one of the famous “Boiler Room Girls” with whom Ted Kennedy was partying before he drove off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. Newberg has never publicly spoken of that tragic night, earning the family’s trust and gratitude.
Gary Ginsberg, a lawyer, was a friend of John Jr.’s at Brown University who worked as an editor at George and also served as the magazine’s legal counsel. Ginsberg would eventually hitch his wagon to Rupert Murdoch, whom he served as a kind of back-channel dealmaker. In fact, John had recommended him for that job.
Ginsberg would reportedly later persuade Murdoch to spike a story in his New York Post about the rowdiness of Caroline’s teenage daughter Rose; Caroline eventually wrote a letter of recommendation to Brearley, a fancy girls’ school in Manhattan, on behalf of Murdoch’s daughter Grace. In 2008, when Caroline made her embarrassing sort-of Senate run, Murdoch’s Post, not known as a friend of Democrats, endorsed her. Caroline, in return, helped arrange a phone call between Murdoch and then–presidential candidate Barack Obama. Ginsberg eventually received a place on the board of the JFK library.
This is how it works with the Kennedys: Powerful people do things for them, and in return, they become known as friends of the Kennedys. The networking possibilities are epic, the social prestige even greater. It’s like being conferred an honorary doctorate by American history.
With the surrogates of Jack, Bobby, and Ted, the motivation to join the club was generally ideological, a loyalty based on common values and goals. Now that there are no Kennedys holding major public office, it’s more pragmatic — money, power, society, and, sometimes, self-esteem. Being friends with a Kennedy makes some people feel important. “When you’re dealing with personalities like the Kennedys, you’re dealing with a cult,” one Kennedy biographer told me. “Not even a group of friends. Admiration is too soft a word. It’s a cult.”
Though she may not have dictated the specifics of the campaign against me — the people who carried it out assured her of plausible deniability — I have no doubt that Caroline Kennedy knew exactly what was going on. How do I know this? Because I wrote her letters describing what people whom she knew were saying about me. She did not write back.