An examination of Kennedy's life

History Channel does good job


November 15, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Given television's fondness for sex and violence, it's no surprise that in the coming weeks, dozens of programs mark the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's death by emphasizing two things: his assignations with women and his assassination in Dallas.

In some cases, Judith Campbell and Marilyn Monroe get more air time than Fidel Castro and Nikita Krushchev. In others, the wrenching images of the widow in black, John-John saluting his father's coffin and the streets of Washington lined with grim and saddened faces so dominate the program that it seems as if Kennedy was killed as soon as he took office.

All of which makes the History Channel's three-hour documentary, JFK: A Presidency Revealed, which premieres tomorrow night, a refreshing change. Producer David C. Taylor begins with the premise that Kennedy's assassination has become a distorting lens through which historians and citizens see his presidency. He aims to remedy that view of history by focusing on how the president lived - not how he died.

The documentary tells the story of Kennedy as president, struggling to lead the United States during a time of great domestic social change and tremendous nuclear danger abroad. The result is a compelling narrative that until now hasn't truly been told by television. Taylor doesn't capture all of this sprawling saga, but nails enough of it to make JFK: A Presidency Revealed stand out from most of the Kennedy clutter headed our way in the coming weeks.

Essentially, the documentary portrays the president as a "flawed giant." Some of the flaws, such as his incredibly poor health, are not his fault. Others, such as his continual recklessness, are.

Supported by independent evaluations of medical records that became public in 2003, the film chronicles an astonishing list of ailments. For example, Kennedy's colitis, which was diagnosed in 1937, was treated with steroids. But that led to osteoporosis, a condition that often left Kennedy on crutches - or unable to get out of bed.

"Beyond causing osteoporosis of the lumbar spine, the steroids also shut down his adrenal glands and brought on the Addison's disease," says historian Robert Dallek, author of JFK: An Unfinished Life.

Addison's can be a life-threatening illness, and Kennedy was administered the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church three times during the 1950s. And all this before he won office in 1960 at the age of 43 in part by projecting a false image of physical vigor.

Unlike many Kennedy retrospectives, the film offers explanations of what historians call his occasional reckless behavior, but not apologies. Richard Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power, says Kennedy's health catalyzed that behavior - especially his use of drugs and pursuit of women.

Kennedy was so dependent on amphetamines, for example, that in 1961 he had Dr. Max Jacobson (known in New York power circles as Dr. Feelgood) secretly flown to Vienna to inject him each morning before he met with Krushchev. Kennedy's poor performance at the summit contributed to the Soviets' belief that they could muscle their way into Cuba with missiles aimed at the United States.

"John Kennedy was in pain every day of his life," Reeves says in the film. "And it [his poor health] drove him to be more reckless or careless than a man who expected to live into his 70s or 80s might be." But Hugh Sidey, Time's White House correspondent during the Kennedy years, says there is simply no explanation except a lack of "discipline" for the recklessness Kennedy displayed with his womanizing while in office.

That point-counterpoint illustrates the research poured into A Presidency Revealed. Virtually every witness and analyst who matters is included in this film: Theodore Sorenson, the aide who crafted Kennedy's most memorable speeches; Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late president's brother; Robert McNamara, the Ford Motor Co. executive who became Kennedy's Secretary of Defense; and Ben Bradlee, the retired Washington Post editor who covered the Kennedy White House for Newsweek.

Beyond such obvious figures, viewers are also treated to the backstage insights of Oleg Cassini, who designed Jackie Kennedy's wardrobe, and Vicktor Sukhodrev, Krushchev's interpreter at the Vienna summit.

A Presidency Revealed is not perfect. Taylor can't resist staging re-creations - in this case, filming a faceless actor standing in the Oval Office - even when there is no need. There's more than enough from-the-era film, videotape, still photography, interviews and narration available to transport viewers into the Kennedy presidency. Each silly re-creation threatens credibility.

Beginning the film with the 1960 inauguration gives short shrift to the role of the president's larger-than-life father, Joseph. But you can find that elsewhere on TV this week - in the replay of The Kennedys, an award-winning American Experience profile of the family, airing Monday night at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

Given the array of Kennedy programs this week, context is not the problem. The great danger lies in television's willingness to let its photo archives shape history. In trying to tell a nuanced story from the Kennedy era, The History Channel this week lives up to its name.


What: JFK: A Presidency Revealed

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Where: History Channel

In brief: Kennedy in life, rather than death.

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