TV revisits Jack Kennedy: Hearts and flowers aplenty, but there's little that's new Presidential Review

November 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

There's a new miniseries that shows new women whom John F. Kennedy allegedly made love to -- lots and lots of them.

There's a new "Frontline" report that reveals what it calls new evidence showing that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the gun that killed John Kennedy in Dallas.

And there's yet another new CBS special featuring anchorman Dan Rather which the network says could be the "final" chapter in TV's favorite unsolved mystery: Who killed JFK?

In all, more than a dozen hours of new Kennedy-related prime-time programming will wash across our TV screens in coming days as the 30th anniversary of the assassination of JFK is commemorated. Much of it is simply a repackaging of the old Camelot pictures of JFK and family looking oh-so-alive juxtaposed with the national nightmare images of Kennedy's funeral.

But there are also some new patterns in TV's treatment of Kennedy this month. They range from miniseries and docudramas treating JFK exclusively as the hero of a romance novel (with the emphasis on romance) to news reports and documentaries depicting his death not as the inexplicable tragedy, as it was first presented to the nation, but rather as a mystery or conspiracy that can and will be solved.

"Kennedy's assassination is the greatest murder-mystery of the 20th century." Rather says in explaining the approach CBS has taken.

"The popular version of Kennedy's life is a perfect romance or social melodrama -- the kind that Danielle Steele or Harold Robbins would write," says Dr. Lawrence E. Mintz, who teaches popular culture at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Neither approach is totally new, but this is the first year that they have moved to the forefront of Kennedy TV imagery.

Glimpses of the young JFK presented as hero of a pop romance novel were previously seen in such productions as 1991's "The Kennedys of Massachusetts," the ABC miniseries in which a twentysomething JFK is shown in bed with a young woman, saying to her, "Just think, someday you can say you slept with the president of the United States."

And, while mystery and conspiracy talk has been around since 1963, it was not until Oliver Stone's feature film "JFK" in 1991 that non-fiction TV reports and specials started shifting in that direction.

Why the change? And does it mean anything?

Mintz says the first step in making sense out of all the new Kennedy TV programs is to understand that the programs are not about history.

"When it comes to something like Kennedy, popular culture isn't interested in history. What it's interested in is mythopoetry," Mintz says.

Mythopoeia, or mythmaking, in popular entertainment today is through formulas familiar to audiences, they can use to make sense out of new information.

Camelot was such a creation based on the familiarity of the Arthurian legends. It's how we initially made sense out of JFK's death. But the Camelot myth hasn't worked very well in recent years with reports of JFK's sexual activities.

Which is where the modern romance novel or social melodrama comes in. Much sexual activity before marriage and even marital infidelity is acceptable for heroes and heroines in such novels as long as all ends well.

"But for it to be a perfect melodrama, Kennedy would have to have narrowly avoided being killed in the assassination and have learned an important lesson through the ordeal," Mintz says.

"The last five pages would then have Jack back in Jackie's arms, a wiser man with a new commitment to fidelity, family and such shared values."

Denied the satisfaction of such an ending by the reality of Kennedy's death, many turn to the mystery/conspiracy formula.

Such pop culture talk aside, Rather says that as a journalist, "I'd ,, love the satisfaction of solving the mystery. I think everyone wants to know all there is to know. This is something that's been with us since the day it happened in 1963."

Of course, there are other factors at play in upcoming TV shows on Kennedy. Popular entertainment and culture related to an event as big as JFK's assassination could never fit neatly into just two categories.

For example, Sunday night, there's the Larry-King phenomenon meets baby-boomer bonding in "November 22, 1963: Where Were You?" The where-were-you aspect is not new, but the big-time, call-in, live TV format is.

And, thanks to a flood of Kennedy reruns, such as tonight's "JFK: In His Own Words" on MPT at 10, much of the early Camelot imagery will still be on display for viewers: sailboats, tanned bodies, happy babies, the ocean, Jack and Jackie dancing under chandeliers, Jack joking with the press, Jack sticking his chin out at Castro, Jack showing vigor, concern and statesmanship.

Are the new formulas and images better or more accurate?

Mintz says it's not about being better or more accurate. Myths change because more people find new ones more satisfying.

"Like I said, popular culture isn't interested in history," Mintz says.


Here are highlights of new Kennedy-related programming scheduled to air in coming days:

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