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Watching The Kennedys with My Daughter

Forget the Obamas, the Kennedys are the stylish Democrats now.

Forty-seven years ago, Jacqueline Kennedy was interviewed on tape. It was soon after her husband’s assassination, and she talked candidly about many topics and influential people, including Charles de Gaulle and Martin Luther King. Recently, these interviews, called Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, were released, coinciding with ABC-aired television specials depicting the black-and-white glamor and football-tossing fun of Kennedy life. 

But these images stood in stark contrast to the depiction of the family in another Kennedy media event, an eight-part miniseries you probably didn’t see. The Kennedys was produced by the co-creator of 24, Joel Surnow, (a conservative) and screenwriter Stephen Kronish (a liberal). The $30 million series was based on a screenplay approved by A&E Television Networks (AETN) and scheduled to debut on the History Channel. The Hollywood Reporter notes that the Kennedy family used the release of the audio recordings to stop the miniseries from being prominently aired:

AETN is owned by a consortium including the Walt Disney Co., NBC Universal and Hearst. The source said that Disney/ABC Television Group topper Anne Sweeney, who serves on the AETN board and is said to hold tremendous sway over its decisions, was personally lobbied by Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy has a book deal with Disney’s Hyperion publishing division, which announced in April 2010 that it will publish a collection of previously unreleased interviews with the late Jackie Kennedy timed to the 50th anniversary of the first year of JFK’s presidency this fall.

Apparently, the family believed the miniseries portrayed them in a negative light, which — coupled with the maneuvering to keep it off the air — was enough to pique my interest. My daughter and I found the series, which went on to win four Emmys, on Netflix. Each episode was both dramatic and straightforward about the famous Kennedy flaws. We used the episodes to learn more about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the lobotomy that Joe Kennedy forced on his daughter, and the family’s connection to Frank Sinatra. (Oddly, Ted Kennedy was left on the cutting-room floor, but one has to assume that the producers had to make some tough choices in order to tell the story in eight parts.)

So when the Jackie Kennedy audio recordings became available, we watched those ABC specials too and smiled when we heard Jackie articulate some of the feelings of the time about the role of a proper lady. (My daughter and I particularly were struck by her statement that all of her political opinions came from her husband, though Caryl Rivers does a nice job of explaining how the former first lady’s conventional attitudes about marriage and women’s social roles evolved as she aged and matured.)

And after all the recent media, I still can’t get too excited about that family or the supposedly better time of American history they represent. In fact, it’s very illuminating that Democrats consider this far-from-perfect family their Platonic ideal, in spite of all of their very public character flaws. In one episode, Joe Kennedy ordered a prefrontal lobotomy on his daughter without his wife’s consent or knowledge. The scene where Rose sees her for the first time after the surgery, which left her permanently incapacitated, was so chilling that my daughter looked at me and said, “This is the best the Democrats have to offer?”

In other words, you don’t have to be a wistful Kennedy fan to use the recordings and the miniseries to talk to your kids about politics, history, and marriage. However, note that the miniseries might not be suitable for younger children. Though it does not have sexual scenes, it does (obviously) allude to infidelities and affairs, and it has some language your kids would get in trouble for using at school.  If you don’t have Netflix and don’t want to purchase the DVD, the Reelz channel will re-air The Kennedy miniseries on November 6.

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