I was eight and in fourth grade when JFK was shot. You're supposed to remember what you were doing when you heard the news. Unfortunately, I don't. What I remember came earlier. We had the album The First Family and played it fairly often. At the time, I knew many of the joke lines. One was about ordering lunch at the White House during some diplomatic negotiation. They go around the table with the orders from the deli, the last being Krushchev. He says something like, "I'll just have a little bit from everybody else's plate." The other thing I remember is watching JFK on TV. I don't recall anything about the substance of what he said. But I do remember the bags under his eyes. He aged visibly while he was President. It seemed like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Maybe it was.
In my never ending search for finding TV shows in the vein of The West Wing, I stumbled onto The Kennedys in Amazon Prime. The Wikipedia entry says it premiered in the US on the Reelz network in April 2011. I never heard of that network before and now wonder whether it is included in our package on Dish. It explains why I missed this when it originally aired. Apparently there is some dispute about its historical accuracy. That mattered not so much to me. I was more interested to see if I could reconcile the show with my memories.
The show is compelling in part because the actor who plays JFK, Greg Kinnear, has a physical likeness to the man he is playing, so much so that you can believe they are one and the same. This in contrast to the actor who plays Bobby, Barry Pepper, who may have had the voice down very well, but simply didn't look like how I remembered RFK, though there clearly was an attempt in his character to try to physically resemble the President's younger brother and right hand man. The best episode, by far, is the sixth one on the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is a brief moment where you see the bags under the President's eyes, the only time in the entire miniseries where he appears this way. In this instance the cause is the strain of the moment.
The President is at the top of his game here. He plays every card in his hand perfectly, even while he gets conflicting advice about what to do. He understands fully that Kruschev is testing him, but otherwise doesn't want a military escalation. The blockade of Russian ships in the Atlantic, headed for Cuba, is the main mechanism for showing JFK's stern resolve. But then a US pilot gets shot down over Cuba. The military advisers say this demands retaliation. Yet Krushchev had sent a conciliatory message via Dobrynin. The decision was made to ignore the news about the pilot and respond to the message. The Russian ships turned around. The escalation was averted.
The buildup to this in the earlier episodes shows a more immature JFK, in his job as President (the Bay of Pigs fiasco is depicted as a none-to-strong JFK capitulating to the pressure put on him by the military), in his dealings with his father (Joe Kennedy is depicted as pulling the strings until he is dealt out by Jack an Bobby because of mob connections), and because of his philandering ways that prove an embarrassment to Jackie. He offers a line of self-criticism that marks a turning point, "I'm not a kid anymore, but I'm still acting like one."
In all episodes after he returns from WW II, he is depicted as in constant physical agony with back pain. To manage that he is on a cocktail of medications aimed at relieving the pain and allowing him to function. These don't seem to impair mental function, but they perhaps explain his early indiscretions (the philandering seems to be something he inherited from his father) and misjudgments in office.
Another possible explanation is offered in the earlier history and his relationship with his older brother Joe Jr. It was Joe Jr. whom the dad was grooming for the White House. JFK's role was not spelled out and he thus pursued his own interests wherever they led. He became the stand in when Joe Jr.'s plane was shot down in WW II, but he wasn't ready to play the role. In the first year plus in the White House, he is still getting ready.
The penultimate episode, which is about the assassination, shows a President who has reconciled with his wife, where there is now affection and mutual respect. Paradise found becomes a horror movie when the unthinkable happens.
There is much missing that we associate with JFK. There is no mention of Teddy whatsoever. There is nothing about putting a man on the moon. He isn't shown delivering the inaugural. Yet for all of that, the series captures the sense that JFK was the President we wanted, with the vision and the sensibility to elevate the nation.
George Will had a column, When Liberals Become Scolds, that I read just before starting to watch The Kennedys. The column bothered me. It takes the assassination as the turning point for Liberalism. This seems wrong to me, in spite of the quotes of Scotty Reston regarding a piece written in the aftermath of the assassination and an editorial in the Times a few days later. JFK had appealed to our aspirations and better angels. LBJ was able to ram home the legislation that this vision implied. Liberalism was still surging in 1964 and 1965. It was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that marked the turning point. Had we a Civil Rights Movement without the Vietnam War, the country may have healed its inner wounds by now. As it is, we clearly haven't done that yet.
But it is both soothing and energizing to hark back to a time when there was so much promise of doing better. This is the appeal of The Kennedys, whether it has all the facts right or not.