'The Kennedys' Creator Defends His Controversial New Series


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In January, The New York Times reported that you altered a scene where Chicago mobster Sam Giancana is called to help John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. How do you depict this relationship?

We show a meeting between Giancana and Joseph P. Kennedy that was brokered by Frank Sinatra. There's a wiretap recording that we play that basically puts Giancana and Joe Kennedy together. F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover played the same recording for Bobby Kennedy. The actual history was that Giancana and Joe Kennedy met in a judge's chambers in Chicago. Instead, we play this scene in a restaurant. That's dramatic license. But the meeting occurred nonetheless.

Journalist Richard Reeves, author of the book President Kennedy, has been very vocal with his criticism. He focuses on a scene set during the Cuban Missile Crisis where you have Jacqueline Kennedy telling her husband that she's going to leave him because of his infidelity. Reeves claims that Jackie stayed.

There are certain things that we know to be true. For instance, it's pretty likely that Jackie was aware of Jack's extramarital affairs. We can only assume these bothered Jackie. If they didn't, then I don't know what kind of human being she was. It's very cynical to say that Jackie Kennedy was unfazed by Jack's behavior. Therefore, we have a logical scene where she responds to his unfaithfulness.

There's a moment in Dallas, just before the assassination of President Kennedy, where Vice President Johnson comes off as a bit of a subservient character. He's trying to make sure he's on the reelection ticket. But everything I've always read about Johnson indicates that he was anything but submissive.

Well, Lyndon Johnson was very unhappy as vice president. He felt diminished. He was always deferential to JFK, the president. But he goes head-to-head with Bobby Kennedy all the time. I just think Johnson was miserable. When we depict James Meredith, the black student who's trying to get admitted to the University of Mississippi and is being blocked by white supremacists, we show Johnson as frustrated. He says, "I know Southerners. I know what Scotch they drink and the kind of rum they put on their barbecue. Let me get involved." But he was never able to get front and center on some of these issues that he understood better than Jack Kennedy did.

Marilyn Monroe is depicted in this series as well. There have long been allegations that the Kennedys had something to do with her death. What will your viewers conclude about her demise?

We went out of our way to make sure that association wasn't made.

But there is an association of a romantic relationship between JFK and Monroe, right?

We never show the Jack-Marilyn relationship. We show the Bobby Kennedy-Marilyn Monroe relationship.

So what is fictionalized in this series?

When you're telling a 40-year story and compressing it, a lot of times you have to meld different characters into one. Every time we have a conversation with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy at home, we're basically creating a scene that takes us to a scene that we know actually happened. That's the dramatic part.

So you're saying that you're not letting the facts stand in the way of the truth.

We were more vigorous than that—because the facts are unbelievably dramatic. After the scene where President Kennedy decides against air cover for the Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, he goes to the residence and anguishes over the men who died because of his decision. He's in Jackie's arms. That's a fictional scene, but it's not a stretch to think it could have happened. We've played everything close to what would be obvious reactions to the events at the time. If we were trying to assert that JFK is a sociopath who couldn't care less about those men, we would have shown that. This series says that these are deeply caring, emotional people who had to make difficult decisions.

In your view, was John F. Kennedy a good president?

I don't know enough about what it was like to be a middle American in 1962 because I was eight years old. I think President Kennedy made lots of people hopeful. He was emerging as a stronger president toward the end of his term. Was he legendary? He didn't serve long enough. But the Kennedy presidency was meaningful for two reasons—because of the way John F. Kennedy and his family looked—they were movie stars—and then there was a tragedy. Those things have kept this family alive.

Isn't it curious how this many decades after John F. Kennedy was sworn-in as president, this family continues to hold sway?

Well, it's mostly with people more than 45 years old. My teenage children don't have a clue about the Kennedys, or what Camelot means. It's not their life. At what point do the Beatles become Benny Goodman—just some relic of the past that has no relevance to one's life? The Kennedys have almost reached that point. In the year 2050, do you think people will give a shit about the Kennedys? I don't think so. Obama will be the fascinating figure by then.

How do you compare the public's fascination with Ronald Reagan to that of the Kennedys?

Ronald Reagan had a love for America, and the America he loved is the one that conservatives love. The country that Reagan believed in so deeply is the same country that some of us see eroding. He takes us back to a time and belief in a leader who championed the great American spirit. For people who aren't even political, Reagan made them feel that spirit in a kind of subliminal poetic way. Plus, he was able to unapologetically implement his ideas. One of the first things he said after becoming president was that our new policy toward the Soviet Union would be, "We win, they lose." That was it—very clear, profound. How can you not love that? It's what a leader does.

Back to the Kennedys for a minute. There have been scores of books, TV movies, and films about them. What are you going to show viewers that they haven't seen before?

The public has read about the Kennedys, and they've seen JFK in action. But this is really a story of the personalities. Our idea was: let's strip away the iconography and get to whom these people really were. Everyone knows the stories of Joe Kennedy, bootlegger, and Jack and Marilyn Monroe. But who were these people in a flesh and blood way? This is really a story about a father living out his ambition through his sons. This is Joe Kennedy, who wanted to be the first Irish Catholic president and was foiled because he opposed U.S. involvement in the coming world war.

There's a scene in the series where the character of Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who is stationed is London, is fired by the Roosevelt administration. He hangs up the phone and exclaims to his wife, "I'm out, Rosie! Roosevelt's Jew boys wanted me out." Did the real Joe Kennedy hate Jews?

No. He just talks the way rugged guys talked in those days. He was little bit of an Archie Bunker type. We wanted to convey some of that attitude.

He was certainly against American involvement in the war in Europe.

I don't think Joe Kennedy had the kind of mindset where he was "anti" anything. He cared about himself and his family. Anyone who was against him was just an asshole.

Were the Kennedys good Catholics?

Rose Kennedy was devout. So was Bobby. Joe and Jack were fairly agnostic. I think they were about their family. Their church was Hyannis Port.

Where has Hollywood made mistakes in its depictions of the Kennedys?

They just didn't dig in. There has been a glamorous, Camelot view of the Kennedys, or a view that looks at them from staggering world events, be it the Cuban Missile Crisis or the assassinations. Those stories are in different places. What we're trying to do here isn't really a political story—it's politics driving the personal.

Who is the hero of this series?

Robert Kennedy. He becomes the evolved Kennedy. In a strange way, he's almost like Michael Corleone. Bobby was the one who suffered, and he emerges at the end wanting to always do the moral thing.

Presented by

John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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