Rewrite of JFK legacy sparks outrage

By Paul Harris

President John F. Kennedy's achievements are demeaned by the mini-series' sex scenes.
President John F. Kennedy's achievements are demeaned by the mini-series' sex scenes.

A new TV mini-series masterminded by the rightwing co-creator of 24 has outraged liberals and placed the legacy of the Kennedy family at the heart of America's culture wars.

The show is the brainchild of producer Joel Surnow, who is a rare political conservative in liberal-dominated Hollywood. The planned series, entitled The Kennedys, has been accused of emphasising the sexual shenanigans of the Democratic Party's most famous dynasty rather than the story of their rise to power and the way they captured the imagination of the American people in the 1960s.

Despite not yet having a cast or a release date, Surnow's plans for The Kennedys have triggered an astonishing backlash among leading liberal Hollywood figures, former Kennedy aides and many Kennedy scholars.

Leading the charge is liberal documentary-maker Robert Greenwald, whose films include Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Iraq for Sale.

Greenwald said that when the scripts for The Kennedys were shown to him by friends, he realised he had to act. "There is not a lot that shocks me, but I read them and I was really shocked. He has such a clearly overt agenda ... It is an effort to defame and destroy the achievements of President Kennedy."

While Surnow may not have done any filming yet, Greenwald certainly has, releasing a 13-minute video filled with attacks by Kennedy scholars and former colleagues and friends of JFK.

Greenwald's video assault is withering, claiming that the script for The Kennedys is nothing less than a brutal and inaccurate hatchet job. "The scripts ... suffer from a vindictive, malicious approach. Even the rightwingers at whom this script is aimed are going to be disappointed," Ted Sorensen, a former top Kennedy adviser, says on the film.

Much of the anger centres on the portrayal of the Kennedys' tangled love lives, especially JFK's. At one point, a secret service agent with an urgent national security message tries in vain to get the attention of President Kennedy while he is having sex in a swimming pool. At another point, JFK talks about the problems of being monogamous and says: "If I don't have some strange ass every couple of days, I get migraines."

Not surprisingly, that has outraged Kennedy scholars, especially as the show is set to be broadcast on the History Channel, a cable TV station that normally deals in serious reconstructions. "It presents him [JFK] as simply a sex addict ... why put this on the History Channel?" asked Professor Nigel Hamilton, a Kennedy expert at the University of Massachusetts.

There are also concerns about accuracy. Sorensen has complained that the script attributes dialogue to him in conversations that never happened.

Other scholars say dates and events are confused or wrong. They also complain that, while it contains a dozen sex scenes, it makes little reference to the Cuban missile crisis, probably the biggest challenge of JFK's presidency. "It's not just sex scenes. It's sex scenes combined with demeaning every achievement that Kennedy ever had," Greenwald said. Yet it is not clear that Greenwald's campaign will have the desired effect of causing the show to be scrapped. This sort of publicity, before a project has even cast its actors, is likely only to stoke public and media interest.

History Channel executives have so far stood by the project, and its producers have said they have based all their ideas on a massive wealth of scholarship. It is also certainly true that the Kennedys' colourful personal lives have provided Surnow and his writers with a wealth of exotic detail and dramatic events.

"We do not go into this with an agenda other than to be factually accurate and entertaining," Stephen Kronish, who wrote the script, told the New York Times.

Others have also leaped to the project's defence, pointing out that the sex lives of powerful people do affect events. "There is, for the History Channel as well as for history, the significant and compelling question of what part sex played in the conduct of our political affairs," said media columnist Michael Wolff.

However, many do see a rightwing agenda in the shape of Surnow's conservatism. He is a friend of liberal bete noire Rush Limbaugh, America's most influential conservative talk radio host. He is also close to Roger Ailes, the controversial Fox News supremo, and George W. Bush's political guru Karl Rove. Surnow's most famous show, 24, has also provoked liberal ire and conservative delight by its depiction of US agents using torture to fight terrorism.

Historians also say the debate reveals how a highly partisan modern political environment has succeeded in making the Kennedys a controversial issue, whereas previously JFK had been a national hero.

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