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.