Some of the left blogs are up in arms over a would-be production History Channel miniseries about the John F. Kennedy presidency. (Here’s an overview of the controversy, and here’s the petition drive with the slick video protesting the Kennedy script.) I utterly disagree, for three reasons. First of all, the Kennedys, an immensely privileged, powerful, and wealthy family that has been prominent in American politics for sixty more than seventy years, are no one’s property. They’re not the property of Democrats, of Irish-Americans, of Massachusetts residents, of Roman Catholics, or even of historians. They were public figures, so even in life anyone was allowed to say anything about them, true or not, and they’re even entitled to call what they say “history.” (It’s up to us readers to render our own judgment.)
Secondly, great writers and artists throughout history have used real people and historical events as inspirations for works of art–“Richard III,” Jacques-Louis David’s portraits of Napoleon, “Nixon in China,” and even “Let Them Eat Jellybeans,” for example–most of which were not “historically accurate” because they were made or produced to make a larger point about human nature, the nature of power, and/or the power of the state. I’m not saying this silly flick will amount to great art, since it’s just a made-for-cable miniseries, but the point is that no one owns American history. Anyone can tell any stories they like about American history–some may find that disturbing, but that’s what I like about it. It’s a free country.
Finally–have any of you ever tried actually watching the History Channel? What a load of crapola! Every time I see it–probably three or four times a year, in a hotel room flipping channels–it’s about Nostradamus or witches or some other kind of quasi-mystical crackpot bull$hit. It’s what I imagine watching Nancy Grace must feel like to attorneys, or what watching “E.R.” is like if you’re a doctor–it’s painful and pointless, friends, because there’s very little “history” on the History Channel. It’s like being stuck in the worst “Renaissance Faire” ever, with all of the bad costumes and bad accents and failures of imagination. So it sounds to me like Joel Surnow’s script about the Kennedy presidency has found the perfect home at the History Channel. (I’m kind of cheering it on–I think it will make an awesome DVD to watch with some fellow American historians while we make up new drinking games. I’m also wondering just how bad the fake Kennedy accents will be.) Oh, and by the way: treating Ted Sorenson like he’s some kind of oracle of historical truth? Probably not a smart move. The New York Times has it right in the headline–it’s Kennedy “loyalists” who object to this movie, not historians.
And now, because you know I can’t resist, some of the vocal and pectoral stylings of my personal hero, Jello Biafra: