Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt

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.

  • 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.