The keepers of the Kennedy flame, led by liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald, are currently on a tear against the History Channel, but I can't seem to muster the energy to share their outrage. As a rule, any campaign that emits even a whiff of censorship automatically turns me off.
As reports this week have indicated, the cable network is currently planning an eight-part dramatization entitled "The Kennedys," with the JFK presidency front and center. There is, as yet, no cast. There is, as yet, not anything that remotely resembles a completed script. But Greenwald, and some Kennedy scholars whom he has enlisted, are already at DefCon 1, because some partial early drafts apparently depict the Kennedys in ways they deem to be "character assassination of the lowest and dirtiest kind."
Greenwald is unhappy that the top guy on the Kennedy film project is Joel Surnow, a conservative who created the Fox show "24." Greenwald insists, however, that he's not trying to censor anybody. But judge for yourself whether Greenwald ally Ted Sorenson, a former Kennedy aide and one of the earliest Kennedy hagiographers, is threatening censorship when he warns that "there will be hell to pay if anyone is ever foolish enough to put this banal, repetitive, old hat lists of libels and slanders on the air."
This bid to, at minimum, pre-spin an unproduced docudrama is foolish for many reasons. Attacking the partial early drafts of any film script is akin to attacking a singer-songwriter on the basis of how his new material sounds as it's taking shape in early studio sessions. In that sense, Greenwald's campaign is an attack on the artistic process itself. Things change. There are endless revisions, additions, and deletions. Perhaps the Kennedy flamekeepers should take chill pills and let this process play out; as Stephen Kronish, the project's writer - and a self-described liberal Democrat - reportedly said the other day, "Next year, when it's done and it's on the air, if people want to criticize it, so be it."
But Greenwald and his allies got ahold of some of the draft material, and listed the stuff they found objectionable. One scene showed a Secret Service agent approaching JFK as he trysted in a pool with a mistress. Another scene showed Kennedy complaining that he gets headaches unless he has sex virtually every day. Shocking! The fact is, both those incidents are well-documented. Kennedy took girls to the White House pool when Jackie was off riding her horse in Virginia, and he once told the British prime minister about his headache dilemma. (Indeed, the Kennedy camp seems to forget that, several years ago, HBO produced a docudrama about the Rat Pack; it featured a horny President Kennedy, and a venal family patriarch, Joseph Kennedy. I recall no outrage at the time.)
If the sex material winds up dominating the History Channel series (which I doubt; the Kennedy camp may well have yanked those draft scenes out of context), viewers and critics will have every right to condemn the whole project. No dramatization should ever be confused with a documentary, but if the finished series takes too many liberties even by the loose standards of the genre, odds are high that it won't be taken seriously anyway.
It's also ironic that Greenwald's move is so reminiscent of the pressure tactics used by conservatives back in 2003 during the production of a CBS series on the Reagans - tactics that liberals repeatedly condemned as censorship. (Here's Paul Begala, on MSNBC: "The right wing has a new favorite weapon, censorship. Wingnuts have pressured CBS into censoring a movie about Ronald Reagan, which truthfully portrays the former president as being callous about AIDS and influenced by astrology.") Are the Kennedyites doing anything different?
Their problem is obvious: Any truthful portrayal of the Kennedys has to be warts and all. There is much to admire in the family saga, but the flamekeepers have a vested interest in minimizing the dark side. The thing is, they were successful in those efforts for many years; hence the Kennedy mythology that reached its apogee during "Camelot." But that era is long gone. If the History Channel serves up its own dramatization, however imperfect, it may well serve to counterbalance the family's air-brushed dramatization of itself. Let the viewer decide.
By sheer coincidence, I just wrote a free-lance piece about how Patrick Kennedy's imminent congressional retirement signals the end of the family's political dynasty. It went up this morning, here.