CNN has devoted a six-part documentary to a project called The Kennedys. One would think that if one spent that much screen time on such a long series that somehow, some way, one would bring something new and interesting to the production. Or at least be able to create some sense of pathos, or perhaps even a sense of impending doom to a saga that clearly contains tragic dimensions on both a personal and national level. To say that this series lacks those qualities is too mild a criticism.
The full title of the series is American Dynasties: The Kennedys. I am a bit puzzled whenever that title is utilized, as John Davis did in his book about the Kennedy family. President John F. Kennedy served less than three years of one term in office, and was killed under suspicious circumstances. His younger brother, Robert Kennedy, was killed amidst even more suspicious circumstances before he even got to the Democratic nominating convention in 1968. One can call the Bush family a dynasty, or the Adams family, but not the Kennedys.
The spin of the series was guaranteed with the choice of talking heads. I would classify Sally Bedell Smith as perhaps one notch above Kitty Kelly on the scholar scale. Evan Thomas, a longtime veteran of Newsweek, wrote one book on the Kennedys, a biography of Bobby Kennedy. I stopped reading when I saw the book contained footnotes to the work of David Heymann who has been exposed as a biographical fraud. J. Randy Taraborrelli is an entertainment reporter who specializes in newsstand type celebrity biographies about people like Cher, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. Larry Tye wrote a book about Bobby Kennedy that was jacket endorsed by, of all people, the post-war champion of genocides, Henry Kissinger. After reading it I understood why Kissinger liked it. Van Jones wrote a book called The Green Dollar Economy. How that qualifies him as a Kennedy authority escapes this reviewer. The series features a few female talking heads like Barbara Perry. I would like to say that they helped provide new and interesting information. But they didn’t. How could they if one of them was CIA asset Priscilla Johnson McMillan?
The plan behind the series is apparent by the middle of the second program. The concept is to make the Kennedy children pretty much empty vessels of their father Joseph Kennedy. Therefore, Joe Kennedy is turned into a caricature whose influence is extended throughout their lives and careers. By doing that one then dilutes their true achievements and aims. I recognized the paradigm since I dealt with it a long time ago in a review of the literature. Over twenty years ago as editor of Probe Magazine, I wrote a long two-part essay called “The Posthumous Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” For that travail I read many of the post-Church-Committee biographies of JFK and noted how these works used that design: for instance, volumes by Clay Blair, the aforementioned John Davis, and the team of David Horowitz and Peter Collier, among others. (See The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, pp. 346-59; also available on this site) Joe Kennedy was obviously the prime financial backer behind the political campaigns of his sons. But it is clear that they rejected what those biographers considered Joe’s worst political trait: his isolationist foreign policy. (DiEugenio and Pease, p. 355) JFK broke with his father during his House of Representatives days. As denoted by his voting record, the young Kennedy was an internationalist, a motif we will return to later. Further, Congressman Kennedy voted to sustain Harry Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley bill. That bill would have weakened unions to the benefit of wealthy businessmen like his father. (p. 355) Neither of these is noted in the series.
Further, The Kennedys tries to say that somehow Joe Kennedy wanted to be president. When he could not—due to his isolationist statements as ambassador to England during World War II—he passed this ambition on to his sons. Richard Whalen was hardly a sympathetic biographer of Joseph Kennedy. But in his 472-page, heavily annotated book, he characterizes the portrayal of these presidential ambitions as “the echo of the press talking to itself.” In other words, they were the amplification of rumors. (Whelan, The Founding Father, p. 217)
And the documentary’s implication that somehow John Kennedy had to be goaded by his father to go into politics also does not hold very much water. If one reads enough biographies of JFK, one sees that, from his early journalistic days, the man was a political junkie. He subscribed to the New York Times at age 14. A visiting professor at the Kennedy home commented after talking to the teenager that, even then, his mind was more politically sophisticated than his father’s or his older brother. He was impressed by John’s ability to put current events in historical perspective and to project trends into the future. (John Shaw, JFK in the Senate, pp. 12-13) A few years later, one of his girlfriends, Bab Beckwith, threw him out of her room because he was ignoring her in order to listen to a news bulletin on the radio. Having seen pictures of Beckwith, I can say that young Kennedy had to have been a triple-distilled political junkie to ignore her for the news. (DiEugenio and Pease, p. 348)
This is also borne out by the memories of his two close friends, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers. Very early, Kennedy told them the reason he got into politics was not due to the death of his older brother Joseph, or any pressure from his father. As an employed reporter, he once covered the birth of the United Nations and the meeting at Potsdam. After that, he decided he could influence events more by being in the arena than by reporting on them or writing about them in books. (Shaw, p. 14) Those were the other two professions—journalism and book writing—he had thought of taking up. The other reason he chose to enter politics was because of his experience in World War II. He was determined that such a conflagration should not happen again. In asking his acquaintance John Droney for help in his first campaign, Droney tried to put him off by saying he was eager to start his law practice. Kennedy replied, “If we’re going to change things the way they should be changed, we all have to do things we don’t want to do.” Stung by the sincerity of that response, Droney delayed his law practice and went to work for him. (O’Donnell and Powers, Johnny We hardly Knew Ye, p. 51; Ted Sorenson, Kennedy, p. 15)
To really understand the spin of the program, one has to note two strophes that the show used in dealing with JFK’s service in World War II. First, how he ended up going to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, and second, his act of heroism there. The show makes much of young Kennedy’s affair with Inga Arvad while he was serving in Naval intelligence. (The show even features reenactments of her.) From all the evidence this author has seen, Kennedy really liked Inga Arvad, to the point of being almost in love with her. The program’s concept is to portray her as a German espionage agent.
Let me summarize the actual episode succinctly and objectively. J. Edgar Hoover tried everything he could to make a case for Arvad being a spy: all kinds of surveillance, breaking into her room, and even planting stories in the press. He never could. (Nigel Hamilton, Reckless Youth, pp. 428-41) And she was not the prime reason JFK left his intelligence position. Kennedy found intelligence work boring; after Pearl Harbor, he wanted to go on active duty. (Whalen, p. 358; Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, p. 86; Hamilton, p. 450)
This spin is a warm-up for the treatment of the whole PT 109 episode. Here, the program tries to deflate the bravery and heroism young Kennedy displayed. One commentator says Kennedy was not really proud of what happened with the incident, and another actually says that Kennedy should have been court-martialed. The following is what the program leaves out.
The August, 1943 episode with Kennedy as skipper of PT 109 was part of a larger and more complicated action, including several other PT boats patrolling for Japanese destroyers close to land. The idea was to snuff them out and fire at them with torpedoes. The problem was that Kennedy’s division leader had left the area with their sole radar set. (Hamilton, pp. 558-59) Consequently, in the pitch black of night, with no radar, Kennedy was left with a dilemma: He did not want to turn on his lights, because that would alert the enemy to where he was. In addition to this, Kennedy was slowly cruising with bad intelligence. The Japanese were aware of the operation much sooner than anticipated. One reason for this was that a fellow PT boat, the one with radar, had already fired at a destroyer. That escaping boat had not alerted PT 109 concerning the destroyers in the vicinity or its action. (Hamilton, p. 559)
The supporting intelligence was so bad that the PT boats left behind were unknowingly about to be attacked by both planes and destroyers. Without radar, the sailors thought the shells were coming from shore batteries. What made it all the worse is that one of the headquarters commanders was urging the remaining boats to go ahead and attack. (Hamilton, p. 561) But by now the destroyers were coming out to do battle. PT 109 was deliberately rammed by the destroyer Amagiri. With communications so poor on the American side, no one rushed to the rescue of a boat that had been cut in half and was burning in the water. Moreover, at least one other boat commander thought that no one could survive such a conflagration. (Hamilton, p. 571-72)
Two sailors had been killed upon impact; eleven men were left. Kennedy had directed the survivors to try to board the floating hulk of the ship. He grouped some of the non-swimmers on a piece of timber from the wreck of the boat. JFK led his men away while swimming with a lifeboat strap between his teeth, towing a badly burned sailor behind. He did this for 4 hours, until they reached Kennedy’s destination, Plum Pudding Island. But Plum Pudding was barren and Japanese barges were floating by. Kennedy swam another 2.5 miles to Olasana Island. There he found some vegetation and water, and the crew transferred to Olasana. Kennedy scratched out a message on a coconut shell and gave it to some native Allied scouts in canoes. They managed to get it to their British scoutmaster. Six days later, with Kennedy and his men in very bad health, a large canoe with some food arrived to carry them to rescue. (Hamilton, p. 594)
How anyone can say, as this program does, that Kennedy should have been court-martialed for his performance under these conditions is completely nutty. The men who should have been charged were those who organized that poorly planned and badly executed mission, as well as the officer who left three boats behind in the dark with no radar. Unlike what the program tries to convey, Kennedy was proud of his military service—as he should have been. He kept his three well-deserved medals; and the coconut shell he carved onto was on his presidential desk. (Sorenson, p. 19) Knowing the full facts, what this part of the program amounts to is nothing but a hatchet job.
The program skips over John Kennedy’s years in the House of Representatives. This is odd, but considering his policy program, predictable. Kennedy’s 1946 congressional campaign consisted of pledges to work for a national health care system, advocacy of workers’ rights to organize, housing for returning veterans, and securing the future of the United Nations as a hope for peace in the world. (Shaw, p. 16) Kennedy had a high profile for a first time congressional candidate because his first book, Why England Slept, had sold well, another point that is ignored by the program.
Once he got to Congress, the issue he fought hardest over was affordable housing for veterans. JFK hammered the GOP for stalling a housing bill and he particularly attacked their ally, the American Legion. On the House floor he said that the leadership of the American Legion had not had a constructive thought about American progress since 1918. (Shaw, p. 21) That would have been an appropriate and humorous quote for the program. But it’s not there. In 1947 he debated Richard Nixon in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, over the Taft-Hartley bill , an act that would weaken unions: JFK was against it, Nixon was for it. (Shaw, p. 23) Again, this interesting and informative fact is rendered incommunicado during the six hours of The Kennedys.
After all but ignoring his three terms in the House, the show picks up with JFK’s run for the Senate in 1952. Evan Thomas intones that at this time John Kennedy considered RFK something like a pain in the butt. Thomas can only say this because the program does not relate the journey the brothers made the year before to the Far East and Indochina. JFK did this in order to raise his foreign policy profile in his upcoming challenge to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in Massachusetts. This is where the brothers met American diplomat Edmund Gullion in Saigon, who told them that the French could not win their effort to retake their colony. They also met with Nehru of India who told them the same. As Bobby later stated, these discussions had a major impact on JFK’s thinking. And the congressman began to express his doubts about America’s prosecution of the Cold War in public venues and in no uncertain terms. This again brought him into open verbal conflict with his father’s isolationism. (Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, pp. 95-97)
Because of these omissions and distortions, the show gets the episode of RFK replacing Mark Dalton as his brother’s Senate campaign manager mostly wrong. RFK was hesitant to take the position only because he had started a job as a Justice Department attorney, which he liked. Further, the real impetus for the request was not so much Joe Kennedy as it was the congressman’s friend and advisor Ken O’Donnell. O’Donnell told RFK that unless he took over, there was a real possibility his brother would lose. (Schlesinger, p. 98) This convinced Bobby to take charge and he did a fine job running a successful campaign. He worked 18-hour days and showed excellent organizational ability.
The following segment, about John and Robert Kennedy on Capitol Hill, is so oddly conceived and off kilter that it amounts to little less than censorship. This section deals more with Bobby Kennedy as a Senate investigator than John as a senator. In fact, JFK’s senatorial career is more or less ignored. The show deals with Kennedy’s eight years in the senate through his several illnesses and operations, his attempt to secure the Vice-Presidency at the 1956 convention, and his wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier. Amazingly, the show calls JFK’s senatorial career non-descript except for his service on the McClellan committee. That committee investigated organized crime and the Teamsters Union and was helmed by Bobby Kennedy.
If at this point anyone had lingering doubts about the deliberate myopia of the series, this section should end them. As John Shaw concludes in his study of JFK’s senatorial career, although it had several distinctive qualities, clearly the most significant achievement of those eight years was the formulation of Kennedy’s challenge to the reigning foreign policy orthodoxy governing both political parties. (Shaw, p. 110) The GOP Cold War militancy toward the USSR and its influence in the Third World was led by President Eisenhower, Vice-President Nixon, and the Dulles brothers: John Foster at State, and Allen at CIA. In the Senate, Lyndon Johnson and the southern Democrats offered no alternative to this; they were, at best, a pale shadow of that policy. As Shaw notes, the joke about the Senate was that it was “the only place in the country where the South did not lose the [Civil] war.” (Shaw, p. 59)
Senator Kennedy continued his lonely crusade to create an alternative to this overwrought militancy by trying to point out that the real problem in the Third World was not communism but colonialism and the counterforce it created: simmering nationalism. Kennedy thought the USA should foster and mold that nationalism—even if it meant conflict with our European allies. What makes the program’s avoidance of this key issue so bizarre is that one of the talking heads in the series is Richard Mahoney. Mahoney is the author of the landmark volume on this subject, JFK: Ordeal in Africa. I don’t for five seconds believe that the producers were not aware of this book. They clearly decided to ignore it and not let Mahoney talk about his detailed descriptions of Kennedy’s opposition to the White House in this regard. (As we will see, this manipulation is a recurring motif.)
Thus there is no mention of Senator Kennedy’s opposition to Foster Dulles’ attempt to bail out the French with atomic weapons at Dien Bien Phu, or Adlai Stevenson’s telegram to stifle Kennedy’s radical foreign policy statements during the 1956 presidential race, or even his milestone speech in the summer of 1957 against the Dulles/Eisenhower attempt to help France salvage another remnant of its overseas empire, this time in Algeria. Kennedy showed courage in making that speech because he was criticizing a long time American ally, one that had helped the thirteen colonies become independent from England. In addition to the White House, the speech was strongly criticized by literally scores of media outlets, and also members of his own party like Stevenson and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. (See Mahoney, pp. 14-29) But as the French dilemma in Algeria worsened, Kennedy began to look like a prophet. And he also became an unofficial emissary to visiting dignitaries from Africa. (Mahoney, pp. 31-33)
There is not one single sentence in the entire series about any of this. So how can one have any respect for its honesty or substance?
The program’s coverage of the 1960 race for the presidency between Nixon and Kennedy is pretty standard stuff. There is one exception to this, and it consists of something that is such an outlier that it should be noted. Commentator Tim Naftali states that the choice of Lyndon Johnson as Vice President was Joe Kennedy’s. Again, this is another attempt to somehow show the influence of their father on the lives of the Kennedy children.
The problem with that declaration is simple. If one reads the two best insider summaries of the VP decision—by Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson—Naftali is wrong. The two strongest proponents of Johnson to Kennedy were Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, and syndicated columnist Joe Alsop; particularly the former. (Sorenson, pp. 183-87; Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, pp. 41-57)
Beyond that, courtesy of RFK biographer Larry Tye, the program obfuscates the split between John and Robert over the Johnson nomination. Bobby Kennedy clearly did not want Johnson on the ticket. He personally intervened in order to get him removed. (Robert Caro, The Passage of Power, pp. 136-38) This is an important part of the story that has to be noted, because of its later ramifications. Bobby’s backdoor actions deepened the antagonism between Johnson and RFK, and it presaged the coming split in the Democratic party after John Kennedy’s assassination. In fact, Jeff Shesol—who is notably absent from the series—wrote a book on the LBJ/RFK dispute and micro-analyzed this incident. It is poor history to ignore or minimize it, since it had such a negatively powerful impact from 1964 onwards—culminating in the disastrous Democratic convention of 1968, which helped usher Nixon into the White House.
Upon JFK’s inauguration, the only cabinet appointment that gets any attention is Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General. Larry Tye says words to the effect that Bobby was the least prepared Attorney General in history. Oh, really? Herbert Brownell, Eisenhower’s Attorney General, was a state assemblyman for four years, and Chairman of the Republican National Committee for two years. The rest of his career he was a corporate lawyer. Homer Cummings, who served under Franklin Roosevelt, was the mayor of Stamford, Connecticut (population 50,000) and a state attorney in Fairfield (population 20,000). Bobby Kennedy had served in Washington as a criminal investigator in the Justice Department, and then a congressional counsel for ten years prior to being Attorney General. He had faced off and pursued some of the most deadly killers and organized crime members in America, e.g., Sam Giancana. His pursuit of the Mob in the Senate was unprecedented in American crime annals. His attempt to clean up corrupt labor unions was also unique. One could argue that it was Bobby Kennedy who really revolutionized both the position of Chief Counsel and the use of investigative techniques on Capitol Hill. In practical terms, what more could one ask for in an Attorney General?
But this is part of the effort to portray the first year of Kennedy’s presidency as something less than anticipated. And if one considers only things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the construction of the Berlin Wall, then it can look that way. But it is what the program ignores that forms the really important part of JFK’s presidency.
What Kennedy was doing that first year was what he had been speaking about for his previous nine years in Congress: altering America’s role in the Third World. It is why he had purchased 100 copies of the best selling book The Ugly American and given a copy to each senator. Because he believed so strongly in the book’s message, he then helped get the film made. Would that not be an interesting background story for the audience to hear? CNN didn’t think so.
That first year he was reversing American policy in Congo and Indonesia. Again, the series had a good commentator for the former in Mahoney. They did not want him to talk about Kennedy’s support for Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, or how the CIA plotted to kill the democratically elected African leader before Kennedy was inaugurated. And since they ignored Kennedy’s great Algeria speech, they could not address an even more topical subject: Kennedy’s attempt to build a relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Foster Dulles had essentially burned that relationship because Nasser recognized China and refused to join the Baghdad Pact. Dulles then withdrew funding for the Aswan Dam, thereby giving Moscow a way to fill that breach. Which they did.
Kennedy thought this was ill-advised for three reasons. First, generally speaking, he thought we could compete with the Russians in the Third World by peaceful means: befriending and aiding non-aligned, neutral leaders. Second, Nasser was clearly an articulate, charismatic leader who had a wide influence in the Middle East. Third, he was a secularist, a socialist and a progressive who directly opposed the Islamic fundamentalists, a force in the area that Kennedy feared. In fact, Nasser had members of the Muslim Brotherhood prosecuted, imprisoned and executed. (See Betting on the Africans, by Philip Muehlenbeck, pp. 122-40; also, this video)
Would this not have been a fascinating exploration of Kennedy’s forward and revolutionary thinking about American policy in the Third World? And would it not have had powerful overtones for today’s conflict with Al-Qaeda? But it is obvious to the reader by now that scholarship, research, and new information is not what this program is about. So they discuss the debacle at the Bay of Pigs (code-named Operation Zapata). But they do not review what happened afterwards: that is, the appointment by the president of Bobby Kennedy to the investigating committee and his role in unraveling the real causes of the project’s failure. Namely that CIA Director Allen Dulles and Director of Plans Richard Bissell had deliberately mislead the president about the project’s chances of success. More precisely, they had never thought it would succeed; they were banking on Kennedy sending in American forces to avoid a humiliating defeat. Joe Kennedy then steered Bobby toward former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett. Lovett explained how he and David Bruce at State had tried to get Dulles fired in the Fifties. When President Kennedy was informed of this he terminated the top level of the Agency: Dulles, Bissell and Deputy Director Charles Cabell. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, pp. 41-47) This CNN documentary presents not one word about Bobby Kennedy’s role in the aftermath of Operation Zapata, or President Kennedy’s decision to fire the three leading figures in the Agency.
From the Bay of Pigs, the program jumps to the Mercury and Apollo missions. Again, this is depicted as a “win at all costs” ambition instilled by Joe Kennedy. And again, the program censors information disputing that characterization reported by one of their own commentators. Back in 1997, Tim Naftali co-authored a book about the Missile Crisis called One Hell of a Gamble. In that book he wrote that, as early as May of 1961, Kennedy did not want to project the Cold War into space. (Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko, pp. 120-21) He thought it would be a good idea to propose a co-sponsored mission. Kennedy originally thought the whole space mission was way too expensive. Only when the Russians refused a joint proposal by Secretary of State Dean Rusk—at a time when the Soviets were clearly ahead in the space race—did Kennedy commit to the Apollo mission. And even then, he later tried for a joint mission to the moon. (Naftali and Fursenko, p. 351) Obviously, if one has a win at all costs attitude, one does not look to launch joint space projects in the midst of the Cold War.
One of the most shocking omissions in the series is that, in the discussion of the Kennedy presidency there is not one mention of Vietnam. And when the subject is mentioned—during a later discussion of Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign—Evan Thomas gets both clauses of his sentence wrong. He says that somehow Bobby felt badly about this early decision that sent American troops into Vietnam. First of all, President Kennedy never sent troops into Vietnam. He sent more advisors, but he drew the line at sending combat troops. And he was recalling the advisors when he was assassinated. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, pp. 367-71) Secondly, there is little or no evidence that Bobby Kennedy was involved in the November 1961 debates where JFK defied his advisors by refusing to send in troops. I have never seen Bobby Kennedy’s name involved in those sessions. ( See John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, pp. 136-39; James Blight, Virtual JFK, pp. 53-95)
It is indeed unflattering when your CNN documentary comes up short in a comparison with Chris Matthews. In Matthews’ recent biography of Bobby Kennedy, he quotes his subject as saying in 1967 that his brother would never have sent combat troops into Indochina, because then it would become America’s war. (Matthews, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, pp. 304-05) But further, as John Bohrer notes in his book, Bobby Kennedy was counseling President Johnson as early as 1964 not to militarize Indochina. (John Bohrer, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, p. 70) This reveals that there was a split between Johnson and John Kennedy on Vietnam and RFK knew about it. CNN decided they did not want to delve into that, even though Bohrer is on for a very brief time.
I could go on and on with an in-depth analysis of each and every issue brought up in this faux production. In the interests of length, I will deal more briefly with some of the other areas.
Both Evan Thomas and Van Jones say that the Kennedys were not really interested in civil rights issues upon entering the White House. This is simply false and contradicted by the record. As journalist Harry Golden wrote back in 1964, John Kennedy was an advocate of a strong civil rights bill in 1957. He thought the bill proposed by Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson might be weak; but he voted for it anyway. (Harry Golden, Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, pp. 94-95; see also Kennedy’s letter to constituent Alfred Jarrette, August 1, 1957) Kennedy said the same to an audience in, of all places, Jackson, Mississippi that same year. As Golden notes, it was these two instances that began a decline in Kennedy’s popularity in the South. But he did not hesitate. In 1960, he told his civil rights advisory staff that he was prepared to lose every state in the South at the Democratic convention in order to preserve a strong civil rights plank in the platform. (Golden, p. 95) As the fine historian Irving Bernstein wrote, between the 1960 election and his 1961 inauguration, President Kennedy asked his lead civil rights advisor Harris Wofford to write a detailed memo on how the issue should be attacked. (Bernstein, Promises Kept, pp. 47-48) This plan—made up of legal actions and executive orders—was what Attorney General Bobby Kennedy followed once he was sworn in. (See Golden, Chapter 6 and Bernstein, Chapter 3.)
In other words, what Jones and Thomas are saying is, no surprise, simply wrong. In fact, in November of 1963, the Attorney General was penning a resignation letter because he felt his support for civil rights had been so prominent that he had lost the entire South for his brother’s 1964 campaign, thus endangering his re-election. (See the Introduction to John Bohrer’s The Revolution of Robert Kennedy.) As I have said before—and it is simply historical fact—in less than three years, the Kennedy administration did more to advance the cause of civil rights than the previous 18 presidents did in a century. This culminated in President Kennedy’s memorable national address on the issue in June of 1963. The Kennedys chose that time to go on national TV because—after Birmingham and Tuscaloosa—it was now possible to pass an omnibus civil rights bill over a filibuster in the Senate. And although the program says that the first draft of the speech was written by Bobby Kennedy, it was actually penned by his employee Richard Yates, who would go on to become a famous novelist. (Andrew Cohen, Two Days in June, pp. 287-89)
The treatment of the Missile Crisis is so foreshortened and elementary that it would not pass muster in a senior high school class. None of the prior warnings that President Kennedy issued to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev about placing offensive weapons in Cuba are mentioned. From the program, one would think that all the information that JFK got about the movement of arms onto the island in the months preceding the advent of the crisis came through the Attorney General. This is nonsense. The first person in the administration to suspect the Russians were sending atomic weapons into Cuba was CIA Director John McCone; this was a month before the low-level U2 flights captured clear photos of the installations. (William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, p. 554) The president had a hard time believing that Khrushchev would do such a thing in the face of his prior warnings—which the program leaves out. Another implication of the program is that it was Bobby Kennedy’s secret talks with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin which forged a deal to get the missiles out. These were important, but Khrushchev had already sent a letter prior to the second RFK/Dobrynin meeting outlining a deal: he would remove the missiles if JFK pledged not to invade Cuba. The second meeting more or less formalized Khrushchev’s proposal. (Taubman, p. 569) The only new information in the treatment of the Missile Crisis is the confirmation that Jackie Kennedy never left the White House during the 13 days. She stated that if the worst happened, she wanted to perish with her husband and children together. Which throws a harpoon into the Mimi Alford story.
And this leads to the Marilyn Monroe angle. The film shows the famous clip of Monroe singing Happy Birthday to Kennedy at his 1962 birthday party. Like many other presentations of the clip, it leaves out the following information. This took place at Madison Square Garden with a paid audience of 15,000 in attendance. The occasion was actually an excuse to stage a Democratic Party fundraiser, something Kennedy had done before. The reason there were 15,000 people there was because the roster of entertainers included not just Monroe, but Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Maria Callas, Jimmy Durante and more. In other words, some of the most famous comedians and singers in the world.
For the previously mentioned essay in the book The Assassinations, this reviewer did a lot of work on this whole MM/Kennedys pastiche. This consisted of speaking to some people who were quite knowledgeable about her life—like Greg Schreiner, who ran her fan club in Los Angeles. Reviewing the rather wild batch of literature on the subject, I came to the conclusion that there was little or nothing there. It had become a cottage industry for poseurs like Jeanne Carmen and Bob Slatzer to furnish writers like David Heymann and Tony Summers with tall tales to burnish their tawdry books with. (See, The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease pp. 358-64; also this story)
But these people never give up. After I wrote that article, a man named John Miner held a press conference in Los Angeles and said that he had unearthed long buried audiotapes of Monroe talking about her relationship with JFK. I did some work on Miner and found out he worked as a prosecutor for the Los Angeles DA’s office, helping with the Bobby Kennedy case. Having watched part of the 1996 civil trial of plaintiff Scott Enyart vs. LAPD concerning the RFK case—LAPD had lost or destroyed Enyart’s RFK crime scene pictures—I got a close look at how deep the cover up was within local law enforcement about that case. The defense witnesses were not allowed to leave the courtroom after testifying. At the rear of the room, near the exit door, each was debriefed by two men in suits. They were not allowed to leave until the debriefing was finished. One tried to and was forcibly jammed back into his seat. According to Enyart, when Deputy Chief of Police Bernard Parks testified, the courtroom was suddenly filled with officers and lawyers in order to get the message across.
Understanding the above, authors Bill Turner and Jonn Christian revealed that the executor of the estate of the late William J. Bryan was none other than John Miner. To anyone who has studied the RFK murder, in addition to the above, this is crucial to understanding the depths of official malfeasance in that case. For as writers like Lisa Pease and Tim Tate have stated, Bryan is the prime suspect as the CIA/military associated psychiatrist who programmed Sirhan for his diversionary role in the RFK assassination. After Bryan died in a hotel room in Las Vegas, it was reported that Miner sealed off Bryan’s office and took possession of his personal and professional effects. (Turner and Christian, The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, p. 229) After studying Bryan’s career, I can state that there was a lot to conceal there. Miner was not taking any chances of it leaking out. Can one imagine anything much worse than a prosecutor in charge of the estate of a prime suspect in a murder case, one in which that suspect got off scot-free?
Finally, as William Blum relates in The CIA: A Forgotten History, the LAPD cooperated with CIA agent Robert Maheu on the production of a pornographic film depicting an actor as Indonesian leader Achmed Sukarno with a shapely blonde woman who, some have said, resembled Monroe. (Blum, p. 111) Need I add that some knowledgeable people suspect Maheu was involved in the RFK hit. (See Gerald Bellett’s book Age of Secrets.)
I think anyone can connect the dots with the above information. If one can fake a film, it’s easy to create or alter audiotapes. Let me add this: Secret Service agents Clint Hill and Gerald Blaine have both said that there was no such Monroe liaison with Kennedy. And as anyone familiar with the Secret Service understands, they had no great love for JFK. (See report by TMZ of 10/16/17)
Before wrapping up the completely inadequate segment on the Kennedy presidency, I should add that another of the many omissions is one of the major domestic Kennedy presidency episodes: the Steel Crisis. I was surprised at this, since the illustrious economist John Blair called it “the most dramatic confrontation in history between a President and a corporate management.” (Donald Gibson, Battling Wall Street, p. 9) The only incident that rivals it was Harry Truman’s intervention in a steel strike ten years prior, but that was during the Korean War. The best I can do is refer the reader to the detailed study of this highly charged episode in Don Gibson’s fine book, Battling Wall Street.
The program’s dealing with Kennedy’s assassination is equally sorry. From their presentation one would think that the greatest misfortune incurred in Dallas was the fact that, after the couple had lost their prematurely born child Patrick, their marriage relationship had improved. In other words, there is zero time spent on the worldwide epochal changes that took place after Kennedy’s murder: in Congo, in Indonesia, in Indochina, in Dominican Republic, and so forth. There is not a word of the impact his death had on the plans Kennedy had made for rapprochement with both Cuba and the USSR. In keeping with the schema of these omissions, there is also no mention of the reactions of both Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev when they got the news of Kennedy’s assassination. Castro was stunned and said, “This is bad news, this is bad news, this is bad news.” When he got a second call, informing him JFK had died at the hospital, he said, “Everything is changed. Everything is going to change.” (Jim Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, pp. 89-90) When Khrushchev heard of the shooting he went into a state of shock. The next day, when he signed his condolences at the American ambassador’s residence, he appeared to be weeping. As his biographer, William Taubman wrote, Khrushchev needed Kennedy. Neither communist leader ever believed the official story about Oswald as the lone assassin. (Taubman, p. 604) In fact, Castro made a speech the next day in which he proffered his opinion as to what had really happened and why.
This avoidance syndrome continues to be apparent as the program begins to address Bobby Kennedy’s reaction to the news of his brother’s death. The program deals with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s calls to RFK’s home the afternoon of the assassination that alerted the Attorney General to his brother’s murder. But it only skims the surface of what he did that afternoon and a few days later. Like Castro, Bobby Kennedy immediately thought that his brother had been killed as the result of a domestic plot. He put calls out and confronted what he thought were the three most likely groups of conspirators: the CIA, the Cuban exiles, and the Mob. (David Talbot, Brothers, pp. 10-12) In retrospect, what is remarkable is how acute he was in this regard, since today, many knowledgeable people believe that these three were the real perpetrators—except they were working together.
To put it more plainly: in disagreeing with the Dallas Police’s instant verdict and the emerging media whitewash, Bobby Kennedy was on the same page with both Castro and Khrushchev. A few days after the assassination, Bobby summoned longtime family friend William Walton to his home at Hickory Hill. He and Jackie Kennedy were waiting for him. They had a secret message they wanted him to convey to Bobby’s friend Georgi Bolshakov during Walton’s upcoming journey to Moscow. The message was that they both thought JFK had been killed by a large domestic conspiracy. Lyndon Johnson would not be able to fulfill President Kennedy’s grand design for détente since he was too close to big business interests. Attorney General Kennedy would therefore resign, run for a political office and then run for the presidency. When Bobby was back in the White House, JFK’s goals would be recovered. (Talbot, pp. 32-33)
Again, the program had a suitable commentator to convey this gripping and revealing episode. Tim Naftali first reported it in his co-authored book on the Missile Crisis, One Hell of Gamble. (Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko, p. 345) And again, I do not believe for five seconds the producers were not aware of this crucial exchange. They simply did not want this important information in the series.
The program’s chronicle of what Bobby Kennedy did after his brother’s assassination is just as bad as, if not worse than, its severely redacted version of John Kennedy’s presidency. Once more, the producers loaded the dice. One of the best books on Bobby Kennedy is In His Own Right, by Professor Joseph Palermo. He is nowhere to be seen. The best recent book is John Bohrer’s The Revolution of Robert Kennedy. Bohrer is on the program for perhaps three minutes, maybe less. The series thus never goes into why RFK decided to resign as Attorney General in 1964.
Bohrer makes clear that RFK quickly perceived what has been made evident by declassified tapes and memoranda: namely, that Johnson was going to both escalate and militarize the Indochina conflict. In doing so, he was knowingly going to reverse President Kennedy’s policy. (James Blight, Virtual JFK, pp. 309-10) The problem was that by 1963 Bobby Kennedy knew that JFK was withdrawing from Vietnam. For it was the Attorney General who supervised the rewriting of the report upon which the president based his withdrawal order, namely National Security Action Memorandum 263. ( John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, p. 401) As Bohrer notes in his book, Bobby Kennedy tried to discourage Johnson from his planned escalation as early as 1964. (The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, p. 70) This, plus the fact that Johnson invited the racist J. Edgar Hoover to the signing ceremony for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was enough to convince him that Johnson’s promise he would continue with President Kennedy’s policies was not really accurate. As Clay Risen has revealed, it was really RFK, Burke Marshall, Nicholas Katzenbach and Hubert Humphrey who did the ground work to the get the bill passed.
Instead of this relevant and important information, we more or less jump to Bobby Kennedy running for senator from New York. There is next to nothing in the program about what he did while in the Senate. None of the fascinating facets that are in Bohrer’s book about how Senator Kennedy stood up to the NRA, to the cigarette companies, how he wanted to repeal right to work laws which weakened unions. RFK’s trip to Latin America to see how Johnson had adulterated President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress is slighted. This is the highlight of The Revolution of Robert Kennedy and Bohrer did some really impressive research in uncovering that remarkable story. Bohrer spends 24 pages explicating this journey south and showing how Bobby Kennedy was encouraging the peasants and the poor to stand up to the oligarchs running their lives. (Bohrer, pp. 231-254) He even encouraged a crowd in Brazil to march on the Presidential Palace. As you can easily discern by now, the series does not deal with Senator Kennedy’s other journey. That was to South Africa in 1966. Nor does it depict his famous Ripple of Hope speech made in Cape Town. This was the first time any American politician had addressed the apartheid issue in a public forum.
The chronicle of Bobby Kennedy’s last campaign in 1968 is done without distinction of any kind. And that is bad, because RFK’s 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination was really the last crusade of the generation of the Sixties. It was their last hope after the murders of President Kennedy and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King would not endorse either Lyndon Johnson or Senator Eugene McCarthy. After they had cooperated through Marian Wright on the Poor People’s Campaign, King was elated when Kennedy declared his candidacy, saying he could make an outstanding president. (Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, pp. 911-12) So did Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Within three weeks, King was killed in Memphis. The program does show RFK going into downtown Indianapolis to calm a campaign crowd by delivering the news of King’s death. But there is very little about the remarkable California primary where, for the first time in the history of the city, the voter turnout on the poor east side was higher than the turnout on the wealthy west side, no doubt because RFK—backed by Chavez, Huerta and the memory of what he did for civil rights for African Americans—had given the poor and downtrodden a reason to vote. There is very little made of this before we cut to his victory speech and then his assassination. And needless to say, there is nothing said about what happened as a result of his death. To name just one troubling twist, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger continued the war in Indochina for four more years. And they expanded that war into Cambodia and Laos. The Cambodian expansion caused the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk, the eventual coming to power of the Khmer Rouge, and a genocide that took the lives of two million more people. (See After the Killing Fields, by Craig Etcheson.) Combined with the current surveys on how many perished in Vietnam from 1955-73, that makes for a total of six million deaths after the murder of JFK. (See the Reuters report by Will Dunham of June 19, 2008) Somehow, CNN thought that Kennedy’s falling out with Frank Sinatra over his underworld connections was more important than that fact. That conscious editorial choice tells us much about what our culture has devolved into.
The segments on Eunice Shriver and Ted Kennedy are almost too brief to merit discussion. Eunice Kennedy married Sargent Shriver and they both became integral parts of the Kennedy administration and the Kennedy legacy. Joe Kennedy hired the latter to manage one of the crown jewels in his real estate empire, the Chicago Merchandise Mart. After JFK was elected, Shriver was one of the prime originators of the Peace Corps, Job Corps and the Head Start program. He ran the Office of Economic Opportunity under President Johnson. He was then the Ambassador to France from 1968-70. At his funeral in 2011, Bill Clinton said words to the effect that Shriver set the bar too high for those in public service.
Eunice Kennedy worked in the field of juvenile delinquency for the Justice Department. She then moved to Chicago to continue that work and also contributed her time to a women’s shelter. She was a major advocate for special needs children and was very important in making the Special Olympics a national program. If there was ever a wealthy couple that did more for those in need than the Shrivers, I would like to know who it is. They get nothing more than lip service.
A small segment, comparatively speaking, is devoted to Ted Kennedy. Predictably, much time is devoted to the tragedy at Chappaquiddick. In preparing my review of the late Leo Damore’s work on this subject, I read several books on the matter. I found the most astute and honest one to be Chappaquiddick: The Real Story by James Lange and Katherine DeWitt. That book showed that, contrary to what Damore was selling, Ted Kennedy received no special treatment in that case. Clearly, Kennedy had suffered a severe concussion in the accident, This is why his doctors considered doing a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to see if there was brain damage. It is also why he had to wear a neck brace for weeks afterward. (Lange and DeWitt, pp. 47, 72), The concussion caused his shock and retrograde amnesia. Kennedy got a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, and he and his insurance company paid an indemnity to the family of Mary Joe Kopechne for her accidental death. Lange, an experienced personal injury lawyer, wrote that this is pretty much what usually happens in a first time case with a record as clean as Kennedy’s was.
But The Kennedys has to pile on. Randy Taraborelli now says that Joan Kennedy, Ted’s first wife, attended Mary’s funeral with Ted, and this attendance was somehow directly related to a miscarriage in her pregnancy. What the show leaves out is that Joan had suffered two prior miscarriages, and she had a mushrooming alcohol problem for which she later received numerous traffic citations and rehabilitation. It was a problem she could never overcome.
The show deals with Ted’s loss in the presidential primaries to Jimmy Carter in 1980. But it deals very little with his great moments in the Senate: his defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination for the Supreme Court, his lonely, spirited defense of Anita Hill, his ultimately successful attempt to cut off funding for the Vietnam War, his assailing of Nixon and Kissinger for the genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), his push for a settlement in Ulster, and his calling the Iraq invasion George W. Bush’s Vietnam. Without these kinds of specifics, it does not mean much to call someone a “great senator.”
This program is really the end result of a trend I first noted in that 1997 essay in The Assassinations.. It is the combination of the tabloidization of our mainstream media with the desperation of cable TV to garner a wider audience. This pairing is fatal to honest reporting and/or scholarly research. In sum, this series is pretty much a worthless time-filler. It ignored good scholars on the Kennedy presidency like Robert Rakove, for People Magazine types like Taraborelli and Sally Bedell Smith, and mainstream hacks like Tye and Thomas. As I mentioned earlier, it was nice to see a few women commentators, but when they are as mediocre as the males, what does it mean to have them on?
What this program really proves is the opposite of what it tries to show. When you have to censor and curtail as much material as this series did, it reveals that the true facts of what the Kennedy brothers tried to achieve poses as much a national security problem for the country as the true facts of their assassinations.