Clout in Camelot

    The Kennedys, shrewd authors of their own mythology, have always played hardball with the media. Way back in 1952, when the influential Boston Post newspaper was hinting that it would endorse Jack Kennedy’s senatorial opponent, family patriarch Joe Kennedy solved that little problem by giving the Post half a million dollars. Lo and behold, the Post then decided to endorse Jack. And years later, while reminiscing about that race, Jack remarked to journalist Fletcher Knebel, “You know, we had to buy that f—–g newspaper, or I’d have been licked.”That episode came to mind when I first heard the news, one week ago, that the History Channel – bowing to Kennedy family pressure – had summarily canceled the scheduled springtime airing of its own star-studded eight-part Kennedy family miniseries. If the Arizona shootings had never occurred, this censorship saga might well be receiving the national press attention it deserves. At minimum, let’s catch up here.The Kennedys and surrogate keepers of the flame first went ballistic 11 months ago, when they obtained early script drafts and discovered scenes dramatizing the family’s dark side. They tried to smother the project in its infancy – which was a tad hypocritical, given the fact that, six years earlier, liberals had voiced outrage when conservatives demanded that CBS cancel its planned docudrama series on the Reagans. (For instance, Paul Begala in 2003: “The right-wing has a new favorite weapon, censorship.”)The History Channel resisted the Kennedy pressure and filmed the series (the network’s most expensive undertaking ever); it stars Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Barry Pepper, and Tom Wilkinson. It’s in the can and ready to go. Yet suddenly, last Friday, the network issued this statement: “While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final project in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”When you hear a corporate entity use words like fit and brand, you know it’s just spin. The reality, as reported in the show business press (and barely covered in the mainstream press), is that JFK daughter Caroline Kennedy flexed some inside muscle. The History Channel is owned in part by Disney. Disney has a book company. The book company is slated this year to publish a Kennedy family book, authored by Caroline and timed to the 50th anniversary of JFK’s presidential ascent. Disney’s book company wants to keep that book. The History Channel is also owned in part by NBC Universal. Kennedy family member Maria Shriver, a niece of the late president, has longstanding ties to the news division at NBC Universal. She reportedly dissed the miniseries in backstage meetings with NBC Universal executives.     It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to connect all those dots.Those who cried censorship when the right put the squeeze on CBS over the Reagan series should be just as incensed by the Kennedy clout that has killed the Kennedy series (although Canadian TV plans to air it in March). Yet the liberal camp has barely uttered a peep. Why do you suppose that is? Are liberals still mesmerized by the family, or has the Arizona story monopolized the public square?Granted, The Kennedys will probably find a home somewhere on the domestic TV grid (although Showtime turned it down earlier this week, as did HBO); the multiplicity of contemporary outlets virtually guarantees an eventual airing. What remains troubling, however, is the Kennedy family’s presumptive behavior. Clearly it disliked the filmmakers’ intention to depict the family as less than iconic.The series’ executive producer remarked the other day, “They truly were a great family that has a Shakespearean family arc…It is blatantly obvious from many public sources that the family had certain flaws and certain problems. We’re not inventing the wheel. (The series) is a positive reflection, but we have shown the flaws.”That’s precisely what the Kennedys don’t want viewers to see. Serious historians – some of whom work for the History Channel, and have reportedly vetted the series – have long documented the family’s warts, along with its triumphs. The truth is a mixed bag, yet still the family wants to somehow perpetuate Camelot and control the imagery (Joe Kennedy, on the eve of the 1960 campaign: “We’re going to sell Jack like soap flakes”).Due to the dictates of storytelling, it would be a shock if the series didn’t take a few dramatic liberties. But, rest assured, they could not possibly be as sweeping as the liberties taken by the Kennedy family over the years, to airbrush its saga in the service of mythology. Perhaps we should let the viewer decide. That would be the antithesis of censorship.

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