Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes as John and Jackie Kennedy in the controversial mini-series.
By Lee Pfeiffer
In today's politically-charged environment, both liberals and conservatives are protesting when dramatic license is taken to depict the iconic figures of their parties. The latest case is the History Channel backing out of plans to air an ambitious 8-part dramatic series about the life of President John F. Kennedy. The big budget project, The Kennedys, caused outrage among Kennedy supporters who claim the former President was being sensationalized through sexually-charged sequences that were not accurate. Scholars also debunked aspects of the script that were clearly wrong from a historical perspective (one sequence actually suggests that it was JFK's idea to build the Berlin Wall!) The project has predictably taken on partisan overtones largely because the series' producer is Joel Surnow, the conservative producer of the hit action TV series 24. That show has long outraged liberal critics who contend it condones the use of torture and other constitutionally questionable forms of behavior on the part of military and law enforcement authorities. Leading the charge is liberal activist and documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald who says the show sensationalizes Kennedy's sexual appetites. In one sequence, Robert F. Kennedy observes his brother having sex with a woman in the White House pool. JFK mentions says that if he doesn't have sex with unfamiliar women every few days, he gets migraines. Kennedy's prowess with women has been the stuff of speculation for decades but some historians say much of what is in the series is distorted. JFK's former speechwriter Ted Sorensen, who recently passed away, also publicly protested aspects of the script that he said were completely inaccurate.
Producers of the series expressed disappointment that the show was dropped by the History Channel. They maintain that the show was based on legitimate historical research and say that any changes to fact were done in the interests of condensing events, not for any malicious purpose. The decision to drop the series comes during a week in which the airwaves have been filled with debate about historical revisionism. A textbook has been printed of Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn that replaces the scathing insult "nigger" with the word "slave". The intent is to get the book back into classrooms where it has been banned because of the racial slur. Many scholars are arguing that Twain was sympathetic to former slaves and distorting and changing his words can lead to a slippery slope of "feel-good" history. Similarly, when Republicans kept their vow to read the U.S. Constitution verbatim in the Congressional chambers, they quickly found that the original document contained passages that would sound outlandish today if read without the modifying amendments that were passed over the last two hundered years. Thus, an amended version was read, which led to more controversy.
The JFK dust-up recalls a similar flap that occurred in 2003 when CBS cancelled a high profile mini-series based on the life of President Ronald Reagan. Then it was conservative critics who accused the liberal producers of distorting Reagan's life and making him a cartoon-like figure. Reagan supporters argued that the President was actually a thoughtful, highly intelligent man, but this was not reflected in the script. Filmmaker Oliver Stone is still being criticized for his 1991 movie JFK. Although acclaimed as a fine example of moviemaking, Stone was lambasted by historians for presenting a widely distorted view of historical characters and events in an attempt to lend credence to his theories that the President's murder was the result of a conspiracy.