Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt

FOR MOST OF ITS EXISTENCE before the past year, the History Channel was a pretty sober place. Part of the Arts & Entertainment Television Networks, which is jointly owned by NBC Universal, the Hearst Corporation, and the Disney/ABC Television Group, History was known for serious, well-made documentaries, most of which seemed to focus on wars and Adolf Hitler. The network likes to boast about the numerous awards its programming has won, and, in fact, pretty much the only controversy in its 16 years of existence involved the 2003 documentary The Guilty Men, which suggested that Lyndon Johnson was involved in John. F. Kennedy’s assassination, provoking outrage from, among others, Lady Bird Johnson. In response, History commissioned an impressive panel of historians, which ultimately concluded that the documentary was indefensible. The channel offered a public mea culpa — a letter of apology to Lady Bird, a ban on subsequent showings, and a commitment to strengthen its review procedures.

For the most part, though, History was an oasis of earnestness in the increasingly anything-goes cable landscape. But for the past several years, a team of executives led by CEO Abbe Raven and president Nancy Dubuc have been remaking the network, adding more aggressive programming such as Ax Men, about macho loggers, and Pawn Stars, which is like Antiques Roadshow meets Jersey Shore. History just notched its best February ever, and among men ages 25 to 54, a group beloved by advertisers, it was the top-ranked cable channel.

The Kennedys was to be another watershed in History’s evolution: the network’s first scripted drama. Despite the conspiracy theories that would later arise, it came about in a typical TV way: History vice president Dirk Hoogstra asked Jonathan Koch, president of Asylum Entertainment, if he was interested in developing a miniseries and suggested the Kennedys as a topic. (Like war, the family generates big numbers.) Koch pitched the idea to Joel Surnow, with whom he’d worked on other projects. Surnow liked the idea and called his friend Stephen Kronish, a liberal who admired Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

The two men worked out a pitch for History, and in August 2008 they submitted an outline, which Nancy Dubuc was enthusiastic enough about to commission a full script. Once she received that script, History ordered seven more installments, and in December 2009, Dubuc gave the green light to cast and film the eight-hour production. “She was the one who shepherded the project,” Surnow said. In April 2010 History announced a high-profile cast that blended acting chops — Tom Wilkinson as Joe Kennedy, Barry Pepper as Bobby — with Hollywood star power — Greg Kinnear as JFK — and a bit of tabloid catnip (Katie Holmes, a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Cruise, as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy). “We basically put together a wish-list cast, and we got it,” Surnow said.

But long before shooting commenced, The Kennedys had created at least one very dogged enemy: the liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald. The Los Angeles–based Greenwald is the founder of the Brave New Foundation, an activist organization that makes left-wing protest films under his Brave New Films moniker. Labeled a “guerrilla” documentarian by the New York Times Magazine, Greenwald has made movies attacking Walmart, the healthcare industry, and Rupert Murdoch, among others. His campaigns also help to raise money for his foundation.

Greenwald told me that a friend in the entertainment industry gave him an early script, and as he read it, he grew outraged by its focus on the personal lives of the Kennedy family members. “I was shocked and angry and unbelieving that the History Channel would agree to such a clear piece of political propaganda,” he said. So Greenwald decided that, one way or another, The Kennedys script had to be, in his word, “fixed.”

  • 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.