Tuesday, May 19, 2009

PBS: American Experience: "The Kennedys"

On Monday, May 18, PBS “American Experience” broadcast a three hour film “The Kennedys”. The film (developed by WGBH Boston) has this website. It is directed by Phillip Whitehead, Marilyn H. Mellowes and David Espar. The film is divided into two parts, “The Father”, about Joseph P. Kennedy, and “The Sons”, about JFK, RFK, and even Edward Kennedy and his accident at Chappaquiddick. This appears to be a new production.

The film seems synoptic and rushed despite its length, because it can be compared to much more detailed documentaries about the Kennedy presidency and the Dallas assassination.

But the second hour, dealing largely with JFK, made many interesting points. During the 1960 presidential campaign, he took naturally to television (albeit black and white then) than did Richard Nixon. I recall listening to that convention on the radio over summer in Ohio (I would be a senior the next year). Kennedy played up on the idea that the Eisenhower administration had not established credibility that the United States could overcome communism, and Kennedy believed that the US was not aggressive enough with technology. Kennedy's anti-pinko positions also helped set up US involvement in Vietnam to come, as well as the Bay of Pigs fiasco (soon after the inauguration). The film covers the inauguration snowstorm in Washington (which I remember vividly, as the first semester of my senior year ended). Later, that summer, according to the film, Kennedy started warning members of his family that the United States really could face nuclear war over Berlin – all of this as the Soviets sponsored the Berlin Wall in August. About that time I was personally getting ready to go to William and Mary, preparing an incident that would become one of the most important in my own life, as discussed elsewhere on these blogs. It’s interesting and relevant to me that the nuclear threat was already more important than most people knew.

The crisis would escalate and then calm down in October 1961, but in October 1962, as we know, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. A few days before going on television, Kennedy told an aide on a plane, “grab your b___” as he was about to disclose the missiles, that had been discovered Oct. 15. I was a patient at NIH then but attending classes at GWU in Washington at night then, and I saw Kennedy’s speech in the GWU student union Oct. 22. I was the only “patient” who understood what was going on and the existential issue it raised. I’ve covered that on my main blog (link here); it was also dramatized in the 2001 New Line film "13 Days" directed by Roger Donaldson.

The stories about JFK’s womanizing are covered, and they indeed could have posed an existential threat to national security, as in William Olson’s 2008 film “An American Affair” reviewed here on my movies blog.

The film plays short service to the assassination itself. I was at work at the National Bureau of Standards when my supervisor walked into the lab room and told me. I remember hearing the Ruby shooting live on the radio as “we” (with may parents) drove home from Church – we were on 17th Street in DC near the White House when it happened. My father kept paying attention to his driving and did not react to the horror that unfolded live.

The last part of the film covers Robert Kennedy, and I was in the Army, at South Post Fort Myer when he was assassinated in Los Angeles. I remember that the barracks sergeant told us all.

Picture: Washington-Lee High School, Arlington VA, on Inauguration Day, 1961 (I graduated in June that year).

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