I have been watching the miniseries, The Kennedys on the Reelz Channel. It was funded by the History Channel and although it did bit meet final approval to be aired their it received over twenty-five million dollars in production budget under those relatively high standards of history. In some manner or other the Reelz Channel bought the rights to air it for about seven million dollars. The result is that it has found a home in this channel that is “TV about Movies” according to its slogan where it can be supported by a large number of background and discussion shows in a cost-effective way. Perhaps the miniseries is a beneficiary of that.
But while all the actors, the director and others participants deserve some credit and while the miniseries is certainly worthily given a face (or pair of faces) by Greg Kinnear’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Katie Holmes’s Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy it is certainly deriving its appeal from the people, institutions and ideas it represents from recent history.
To understand the reason the numbers are high and the buzz is up for this miniseries is to look at why the Kennedys were and are compelling figures for Americans. It seems to me that Newt Gingrich, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin have all captured part but not nearly all of what it took to be the symbol the Kennedys became. Jack had already really won a medal in a real shooting war in the Pacific and risked death. Joe had died flying an experimental bomber. Jack had written a successful political book. As the family of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy they had lived in London and absorbed some of the sense of order and decorum in Europe. They had real family ties to Hollywood, the Mob, the Mafia (in those days two very distinct things these last two entries), Harvard and the Catholic Church in America. Jackie really was a social success and fashionable without the office, she really spoke French well and she really did understand fashion.
They were bringing a great deal into the institution in a very particular mix and they had a long history of reaching for American concerns. That was before Jack and Bobby were shot and killed. The chance to be something more than America has become was really cut short. I do not think the Kennedys were leading America all that effectively forward and their faults in many policy areas are evident to me in the miniseries as they have been before. However, they were engaged in addressing many areas of policy which had not been addressed effectively before or since and some which were only addressed because of the impression they made.
These people were able to combine the achievements of their public office with the benefits of private fortunes and personal reputations so that in recent decades we have the Kennedy Center and the Kennedy Center Honors. The larger family network is cohesive and is tied to govenement programs that have continued a tradition like the Peace Corps. We have the Special Olympics. We had George Magazine and possibly part of the success of Arnold Schwarzenegger and all the programs he has put forward flowing from the same family. We have Ted Kennedy dying with his efforts focused largely on supporting Barack Obama and healthcare reform. America knows of the women they bedded illicitly and the ones the extended family killed to some degree of directness or other as well as finding many of their policies divisive. The last survivor of the Kennedy family in the White House Caroline can speak with confidence on any subject she chooses and know most Americans will listen to what she has to say and with some respect — so it is a legay as regards women that carries forward many strands across time . However the complexity of right and wrong is not the main story, America knows the Kennedy family have dared much in service to the country. Their story is not over yet and may still have some surprising chapters in it. However, always there is more controversy imbedded even in each new chapter. The current chapter is this miniseries itself.
In the miniseries and in the lives of the Kennedys we find life writ larger than most, but in the colors and flavors of most lives. Americans see life as they have tasted it more or less — the bitter and the sweet.