Friday, November 17, 2023

Kennedy, on History Channel

He was a military veteran and a hawkish Cold Warrior. In his era, that was largely expected of presidential candidates from both major parties. John F. Kennedy continues to be a source of inspiration for Democratic Party members and those who remember the promise of his campaign, but could he still win a party primary? Tragically, we will never know how Kennedy might have guided his party and his nation as a respected elder statesman. For the 60th anniversary of his assassination, writer-director Ashton Gleckman chronicles the President’s short but eventful life in the 8-part Kennedy, which premieres tomorrow on History Channel.

Gleckman and his on-screen commentators start at the beginning and work their way towards that fateful day in Dallas. Unlike the Doris Kearns-Goodwin and Malcolm Venville produced presidential docu-series (like
FDR), Kennedy features no dramatic re-enactments, relying instead on archival news footage (and talking heads).

Not surprisingly, there is bias in JFK’s favor, but that would almost be required to invest sufficient time out of your life to produce an eight-hour docu-series. On the other hand, Joe Kennedy Sr. does not get the same treatment. In fact, most viewers should conclude his ambassadorship to the United Kingdom was a dangerously poor appointment at a particularly precarious moment.

On the other hand, it is interesting to learn JFK was a rather hawkish college student, who greatly admired Churchill. He even wrote a bestseller,
Why England Slept that completely vindicated Churchill’s wilderness years. There are also some valuable lessons regarding retail politics to be gleaned from Kennedy’s primary campaign for his first congressional term. Out of the entire field, he was the only veteran.

Probably the best sections of
Kennedy break down the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was even scarier than most people understand. The media also often overlooks the death of American U2 pilot Rudolf Anderson Jr., who was shot down by the Soviets during the standoff. In recent years, Khrushchev has gotten a lot of good posthumous press. However, Gleckman and company clearly portray the Soviet General Secretary as the escalator and Kennedy as the cooler head.

In a glaring omission, the term “missile gap” is never mentioned, even though it was one Kennedy’s major lines of attack against Nixon. It was also largely non-existent, as Kennedy knew, but Nixon was constrained in how he could respond. Perhaps the most conspicuous absence is that of Robert Kennedy Jr., who has had an interesting year, but he is still JFK’s nephew and the son of his closest confidant.

For the most part, the analysis of Gleckman’s experts hews very closely to conventional wisdom. Perhaps the most controversial contention will be Kennedy and Nixon maintained very similar positions during the 1960 campaign, but Nixon’s record on civil rights was maybe incrementally better.

The trauma of Kennedy’s assassination still persists to this day. He was right on many issues, but maybe he was the wrong choice for 1960. If Nixon had won, the Bay of Pigs operation might have been successful with the proper air support. Consequently, the Cuban Missile Crisis never would have happened. Following the possible if-thens from there, arguably, there would have been less pressure to escalate American military involvement in Vietnam. That would have spared the nation the divisive anti-war New Left movement. Presumably, the assassination of 1963 would not have happened either. Nixon would never have gone to China in 1960 and JFK probably would not have gone in 1972, because you had to be Nixon to go to China—and maybe now we would not be so economically “coupled” with the CCP.

That is all my speculation, none of which is reflected in Gleckman’s
Kennedy. In general, the history in the series is strong, but the analysis is just okay. Yet, that history is important. Recommended as a reasonably deep dive into the history and legacy of JFK, Kennedy starts airing tomorrow (11/18) on History Channel.