Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
IN THE WAKE OF ITZKOFF’S ARTICLE in the New York Times, History executives decided that, as The Kennedys scripts were developed, the network had to be ultracareful.
“We were in the middle of writing the shows when we got the word that we needed to make sure there wasn’t a single frame of film that didn’t meet the highest historical standard,” Joel Surnow said. “Everything had to be pretty much double-sourced by very specific scholarly writers. There was the concern that now that we’re actually here [with eight scripts in development], we have to make sure we’re bulletproof historically.”
Both Surnow and Kronish admitted to taking liberties with dialogue and dramatization, particularly with scenes involving the Kennedys’ personal affairs — there was simply no way to write scenes at, say, the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port without inventing dialogue. “There were some characters that became composites, things like that,” Kronish said. “We weren’t doing a documentary.”
Robert Greenwald, meanwhile, worried that, despite his online petition and media blitz, the “political propaganda” was marching forward. “We asked for and could not get a copy of the fixed script,” he told me. It would be unusual for an outsider with no role in the production to see a script, particularly one who’s already denounced the work. But Greenwald said that’s precisely why History should have kept him in the loop. “They were in trouble because they had a front-page story in the Times, and they needed to do damage control,” he said.
Composites and made-up dialogue notwithstanding, Surnow and Kronish told me they were serious about getting the big stuff right, even incorporating direct quotes from Kennedy White House tapes. Plus, they had help: The History Channel had asked historian Steven Gillon to work with the writers to ensure accuracy. The University of Oklahoma professor, who’d deftly handled the controversy with the network’s LBJ documentary, was well qualified for a project blending popular history and the concerns of America’s most famous family: When Gillon was a graduate student at Brown, he’d taught John Jr. , then an undergrad. The two became friends, and John had asked Gillon to write for us at George. Though I haven’t seen him since, I met Gillon during those days, and he was clearly a good friend of John’s. Gillon also had firsthand experience writing history and making television about the Kennedys. In 2009 he published The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After, the basis for a two-hour History Channel special that he hosted.
“We went through draft after draft,” Kronish said of the writing process. “Gillon recognized that we were not doing a documentary, but a historically based drama. He recognized a certain latitude. But when it came to facts about the Kennedys’ political and public lives, we had a couple of arguments because he was very insistent that our sources be academically recognized.” In the end, Kronish said, “they were.”