television commentary

The Kennedy Chronicles: TV documentaries mark assassination anniversary


50 years later, we’re still talking about a shocking assassination examined in a host of new TV shows


• “Killing Kennedy.” 8-10 p.m. Sunday. National Geographic Channel.

• “American Experience.” 9-11 p.m. Monday. WPBT-PBS 2.

• “Capturing Oswald.” 10-11 p.m. Tuesday. Military Channel.

• “JFK: The Lost Tapes.” 7-8 p.m. Nov. 21. Discovery Channel.

We knew something was up when a teacher from down the hall opened the door of our fifth-grade classroom and summoned Mrs. Randall out into the hallway. Our apprehension grew exponentially as Mrs. Randall returned to the room, strode over to the television on which we watched our science and music lessons, and switched the channel away from the educational station to which it was perpetually tuned. Moments later, Walter Cronkite was telling us that President Kennedy had been shot. Later, after he died, Mrs. Randall switched the TV back to our music class. As we watched, somebody off camera handed the music instructor a note. School was dismissed for the day, she told us after reading it, and then tears streamed down her face, the first I had ever seen a grown-up cry.

The day, and the long weekend that followed, were filled with stunning events. There was the endless ghostly procession of mourners past the coffin in the Capitol rotunda. The breathtakingly melancholy beauty of his black-clad wife at the funeral. The murder of the president’s murderer. All of which we watched on television — suddenly the focal point of our household instead of just something turned on for a couple of hours each night. I never dreamed that 50 years later, we would still be talking about it: Arguing about who killed the president and why and what it meant and how our lives might have turned out differently if it hadn’t happened.

Forty or more new books on the assassination have been published in just he past few months. TV documentaries began rolling out last month and will number at least two dozen by the anniversary on Nov. 22. And while the marketing magic of a round-number anniversary like the 50th has certainly inspired some of the hoopla, the truth is that obsession with the Kennedy anniversary has never significantly ebbed. I once joked to a friend that the only remaining author in the world who hadn’t written an assassination book was Stephen King, and only because he couldn’t figure out how to work a vampire or a werewolf into the plot. It was pretty funny until King published 11/22/63 and it topped the bestseller charts for four months. (I was right about the vampires and werewolves, though; he used time-travelers instead.)

Part of this is, doubtless, baby boomer self-obsession. We (I was born right in the middle of the boom) have never discovered any subject remotely as fascinating as ourselves, and certainly the Kennedy assassination was a formative moment for boomers. It was a wildly premature intimation of our own mortality, for if death — whether darkly conspiratorial or merely the product of idiot chance — could strike the most powerful man in the world in his youth (younger than most of our parents!), it could do so to anybody, anytime, any place.

For many boomers, the Kennedy assassination was the first clue that the pleasant facade of life masked ugly impulses; that evil existed as more than a Sunday-school parable; and that not every ending is a happy one. Those are powerful discoveries that mark those who experience them for life, and we experienced them all at once. It would have been surprising if the Kennedy assassination had not remained a major milepost in our lives.

But the assassination is a story that resonates far beyond the boomers. Its significance is underlined by the anarchic disorder that followed during the next decade: Racial violence. The dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War. Political upheaval and disaffection. Would any of it have happened — at least, would it have happened in the same tumultuous way — if John F. Kennedy had lived?

More broadly, the assassination (and the events that preceded and followed it) are an epic tale, one that satisfies nearly every literary form. The fairytale prince and princess. The murder mystery. The political thriller. A morality tale of passion and pitfalls. Almost anybody who learns even a small part of the story wants to hear more.

Television over the next few weeks will certainly indulge the Kennedy temptation from every possible perspective. The best of the lot is PBS’ American Experience series, which airs the two-part JFK —Like No Other, in the 9-to-11 p.m. time slot Monday and Tuesday. Possibly the most exhaustive documentary about Kennedy, it is unusually clear-eyed in assessing the dark underbelly of the Camelot mythology that envelops his presidency.

That presidency, in large part, was a mess, the documentary acknowledges. Kennedy campaigned as an aggressive young Cold Warrior who would employ bold new strategies to stop the spread of communism — over and over, he warned (wrongly) that Soviet technology and economic power had surpassed that of the United States, resulting in a “missile gap” that the Russians would exploit through nuclear blackmail. “Kennedy bought this idea of communism on the march, that we were in this twilight struggle, that we had to face off against the communists everywhere,” explains historian Evan Thomas.

Once in office, he governed as promised, virtually ignoring domestic policy (including America’s simmering civil rights problems, which would boil over during his time in the White House) to pursue confrontation with the Soviets. Kennedy believed that the Eisenhower administration had relied too much on brinksmanship, shying away from military engagements in the Third World while using nuclear threats to contain Soviet aggression. The problem with that, in his view, was that if the United States threatened nuclear war too often, one day its bluff might be called.

Instead, Kennedy argued, we could pursue what he called a “flexible response,” fighting — and winning —small wars in the underdeveloped countries where the Soviets were making gains. It was a risky strategy that eventually backfired in every way: Those small wars quickly turned big, as in Vietnam, and even threatened to go nuclear, as in the Cuban missile crisis.

JFK — Like No Other views the numerous disasters and near-disasters of the Kennedy White House as the predictable outcome for a man who believed that youth and vigor trumped age and wisdom and that “gleeful amateurism” was a viable style of governance. “The qualities that had carried John Kennedy to the presidency — natural rebelliousness, stubborn self-reliance, spectacular self-confidence — had also led him to make mistakes and missteps that helped put the country in mortal danger,” the documentary notes.

It casts an equally harsh eye on Kennedy’s personal licentiousness and his cynical political deceptions, particularly regarding his failing health and the drugs he took to parry pain and fatigue. (The idea that we had a president who was taking heavy doses of methamphetamines and steroids while playing nuclear chicken with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis is almost too terrifying to contemplate.)

Yet the charm and grace that captivated the country during Kennedy’s life and gave rise to the Camelot myth after his death were quite real, and they, too, are on display in JFK — Like No Other. And in Killing Kennedy, the National Geographic Channel’s dramatized version of the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, they almost eclipse the president’s politics. Rob Lowe as Jack and Ginnifer Goodwin ( Big Love) as Jackie look head-over-heels in love — as, by all accounts, the president and first lady were, no matter what he was doing behind the locked doors of the White House pool.

The romance isn’t enough to save Killing Kennedy from its clipped, episodic construction. But the performance of Will Rothaar ( Last Resort) as assassin Lee Harvey Oswald almost is. Rothaar portrays Oswald with a combustible mix of sophomoric Marxist kant and frustrated, formless ambition that reaches its zenith in a ghostly, satisfied sneer that flashes across his face as he rides down an elevator to the basement of the Dallas police station where he has an unknowing appointment with the eternal fame he seeks.

Oswald’s murder in that basement, moments later, would win the Dallas police force notoriety as redneck chumps that would take decades to live down. The Military Channel’s Capturing Oswald doesn’t entirely exonerate the Dallas cops, but it does offer a considerably more nuanced view of their performance than history has generally accorded them.

Despite being harried by the FBI and other federal agencies who were butting into the case even though they had no jurisdiction — in 1963, there was no federal law against murdering the president — the cops did an admirable job when it came to pure police work. Within an hour and a half of the fatal shots, they had Kennedy’s assassin in custody and had recovered the murder weapon, which would soon yield incriminating fingerprints that surely would have led to Oswald’s conviction.

But none of the half-dozen or so former Dallas policemen interviewed in Capturing Oswald (including Jim Leavelle, the cop in the big white cowboy hat whose look of astonishment as Oswald is shot to death right beside him remains one of the most indelible images of that weekend) can really account for why there was so little security at the police station, despite a deluge of phone calls from outraged Dallasites threatening to kill Oswald.

If their excuses aren’t convincing, though, their recollections of the weekend — from the FBI’s interference in Oswald’s interrogation to the outrage of Jack Ruby after he was arrested for murdering Oswald on national television — are fascinating. Ruby, who owned a strip club where many of the customers were policemen, shouted complaints as police wrestled him to the ground after he fired the fatal bullet. “Hey, guys, it’s me, it’s old Jack!” he yelled. “That kind of gives you a clue that he thought they’d just dust him off and say, ‘Golly, Jack, you should be more careful,’ ” ruefully recalls one of the cops.

JFK: The Lost Tapes, which airs on the Discovery Channel, on Nov. 21, is made up almost entirely of recordings from police radios, Air Force One communications with the White House Situation Room and commercial radio newscasts on the day of the assassination. It’s a fascinating glimpse back into a pre-wired world, where reporters had to scramble for pay phones — remember those? — to file their stories, and even top government officials had little idea what was happening on the ground.

Its most poignant moment comes when Lyndon Johnson, the newly sworn-in president, calls Kennedy’s mother Rose from the plane that’s carrying his body back to Washington. “I wish to God there were something we could do,” Johnson tells her in a stricken tone. “Yes, Mr. President,” she replies in a voice that is startlingly steady and kind. “I know you loved Jack, and he loved you.” Skype wouldn’t come along for another 40 years, so we can only imagine the look on her face as she spoke those terrible words: Yes, Mr. President…

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

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