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Dead Kennedys and Live Politics

Why are the lives of Jack and Bobby Kennedy still being dramatised nearly five decades after their deaths? And what is significant about the latest effort, The Kennedys, which recently concluded on BBC2?

Why are the lives of Jack and Bobby Kennedy still being dramatised nearly five decades after their deaths? And what is significant about the latest effort, The Kennedys, which recently concluded on BBC2?

In the United States the series proved so controversial it was dropped by the History Channel and shoved onto the more obscure Reelz. For the supposed Republican affiliations of the series' producers encouraged some to see it as a partisan attack on the legacy of Jack Kennedy and such critics suggested that the series was so factually flawed it was closer to propaganda than history.

Yet, all history is propaganda of some kind or another: what critics really objected to was that it was not their sort of propaganda. Moreover, no dramatization of the past - if it is to be interesting to audiences - can accurately reflect that past: what critics did not care for was that the producers' distortions were not their own.

The series, it turns out, is no more inaccurate than The Reagans a series that was set to be broadcast on the CBS network in 2003 but was then shunted on to the cable channel Showtime after Republicans made complaints very similar to those directed at The Kennedys.

For The Kennedys - like The Reagans - focuses on the private lives of its protagonists rather than their public achievements. So, viewers see Jack and Jackie getting through their days thanks to cocktail of drugs, in the former's case due to a debilitating back injury and Addison's Disease. There are also Jack's affairs. None of this is made-up - many historians have written largely unread books which make that plain enough. But mass audiences are not used to seeing their past political heroes dramatized in such a manner: like voters at the time they have hitherto been protected from certain tricky facts.

Jack Kennedy's life was first dramatised on the screen in PT 109 (1963), a movie released a few months before his death, which depicted his wartime heroics in the Pacific. However, other screen Kennedys have appeared after both brothers' assassinations and in these they have been represented as slain princes who, had they lived, would have made the United States a better place. These movies consequently focused on their public rather than private lives. According to JFK (1991) had Jack not been assassinated the Vietnam War would have ended before it began. If RFK (2002) and Bobby (2006) are to be believed, had the President's younger brother lived to win the 1968 election peace would have been quickly restored to Vietnam, the inner-cities and campuses. The Missiles of October (1974) and Thirteen Days (2000) even have Jack and Bobby saving the world from nuclear destruction. The earlier series Kennedy (1983) did refer to Jack's affairs - but did not depict them - and significantly presented them as a sideshow, the obsession of a deranged and sinister J. Edgar Hoover, who was invariably shot in the shadows.

I have no idea if he really said it, but in Nixon (1995), Richard Nixon talks to a portrait of Jack Kennedy and says of the American people: 'When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are'. Nixon was generally regarded to be the consummate 'politician' - he seemingly embodied what many Americans feared about their leaders. In contrast the two Kennedys came to represent idealism, nobility of purpose - they even made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the public. To the extent that Americans wanted to believe in such past political paragons they got the dramas that fed that need.

As a straw in the wind, The Kennedys might point in one of two directions. On the one hand, it represents a refreshing honesty about past figures, one that puts their political achievements into greater relief. Viewers might wonder for example how Jack could be an effective President while living with constant and excruciating pain. It could reinforce the myth by making it seem more real.

However, my money is on another possibility. Americans (and Britons) are accustomed to having the private foibles of their current politicians depicted in inglorious Technicolour. The Kennedys suggests to me that this cynical - others might say realistic - perspective is now being applied to a once-idealised past. It is moreover a perspective in which public affairs is pushed to the background and private foibles brought to the fore. For, despite the protests of Joe Klein, this disparaging, distrustful media-led approach to politics is now the one through which most Americans view Washington (and most Britons see Westminster), an approach that has politics full of Nixons. The Kennedys suggests to me that views of the past are now being modified to suit the expectations of the present.

That The Kennedys is a television political history with most of the politics left out is not therefore due to the producers alleged Republican sympathies but to their desire to attract an audience: for the public invariably gets the dramas it wants to see.