The "History" Channel, the Kennedys, and Sympathy for the Devil

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 moveThe 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:

27 thoughts on “The "History" Channel, the Kennedys, and Sympathy for the Devil

  1. Jello, we hardly knew Ye. What are they doing now?

    Watching the History Channel would be sort of like a geographer watching the Nat-Geo channel and seeing fifty-two minutes of close-ups with voice-overs about how they build a 500-ton machine to strip the asphalt off of decommissioned roads and wondering what this has to do with geography. I guess the camerawork is being done at some gps coordinate on a planet somewhere, and the voice-over work is being done in cyberspace somewhere, so you may have the makings of a neat map of some sort.

    I did a couple of brief book interview things one time that got sucked into the vortex of Planet History, where they ran forever in the small hours. Students would come up years later and say, hey, I saw you on the HC. Those residuals checks can be sent to:

    39.948478, -75.180155
    39.948478 -75.180155

    Agreed, the Kennedys are now in the public domain, esp. since they’re apparently pulling out of Massachusetts, for the time being anyway.


  2. In 1957, when JFK was already being promoted as a future Democratic Presidential candidate, Clancy Sigal, in his quasi-autobiographicalGoing Away, referred disrespectfully to “Profiles in Snollygostering.” (Wiki defines this as “A shrewd person not guided by principles, especially a politician.”)


  3. I agree the The History Channel is total crap, and that accounts about public figures can be whatever the creators want them to be. I also believe the public airwaves belong to the people, or should, and we have a legitimate interest in how they are used. So I have no problem with people employing boycott or other legal protest to convey their displeasure about the way a historical figure is portrayed. It was fine for conservatives to protest on behalf of their hero Reagan, and it’s fine for liberals to do the same on behalf of the Kennedys. I assume your respect for freedom extends to those circulating the petition, does it not?


  4. Nothing makes me despair for the future of history in this country like watching 15 seconds of the History Channel. I’ve never seen a “documentary” on their station that did not include dramatic recreations – and that of course is just the tip of the iceberg of the dumb-downed trash they produce. Yeah. It seems silly to get all in a twitter about *one* crappy thing they produce, rather than the whole bag of garbage. What surprises me even more, however, is that there has been enormous pile of media produced on the Kennedys, much of it trashy non-historical nonsense, so why the furor now? Certainly people have the right to “boycott” (and throw me on the list for my lifetime boycott of the entire channel) if they want to – just, why?

    (I have, however, read on a couple of blogs not-so-negative reviews of ER by ER docs and nurses – basically, my take home point is that ER is probably more realistic than the history channel.)


  5. “Certainly people have the right to “boycott” (and throw me on the list for my lifetime boycott of the entire channel) if they want to – just, why?”

    Perpetua said it best. Of course people are free to protest or boycott whatever they want to. (How could anyone possibly stop them?) But, insisting on only filiopietistic accounts of America’s Royal Family doesn’t strike me as a particularly noble endeavor. But–whatever. Neither is blogging!


  6. And, p.s. to Profane: excellent! I originally had “Holiday in Cambodia” up as today’s video sample, but since this was a post about the Kennedys, I thought that “Terminal Preppie” was a better choice.


  7. I saw the article in the NYTimes about this. I guess I can see why people would be up in arms. Let them.

    I propose that Historiann, Tenured Radical Squadromagico and their regular commenters conduct an exquisite corpse exercise devoted to the Kennedys. We’d certainly be able to come up with a Kennedy docudrama script that was: a) more historically accurate; b) trashier; c) more amusing and d) likely to raise the hackles of Kennedy loyalists everywhere than the history channel.


  8. Oooh oooh oooh! Love this, Matt!

    But, I’d have to do actual homework for that, wouldn’t I? (TR is the only modern U.S. historian in the bunch you listed. What about GayProf, and the mysterious C. Vann Winchell? I think they’ve got something to add, too.)

    Or, maybe NOT doing the homework is the point?


  9. The issue isn’t the Kennedys; they’ve had just about everything but the kitchen sink thrown at their legacy.

    It’s that Joel Surnow’s writing it — one of the few avowed right-wing producers and showrunners out there, a man who didn’t meet a torturer he didn’t like (or tout up to West Point students). If there’s a cheerleader for our slow-motion facism-for-the-sake-of-counterterrorism state, it’s him.

    I wouldn’t be surprised it will be an excuse to pillory JFK and Them Best and Brightest Boys for the Bay of Pigs, from a soulful, handsome operative in Havana’s perspective. This will be a hit job, but it will have a larger impact on what he considers to be the failure of liberalism.

    Historiann, did you have this detached sangfroid during the controversy over The Road to 9/11? ‘Cause this is exactly what this agitprop will be….


  10. cgeye–I wasn’t blogging then, but I would have written the same thing. This Surnow guy is a hack, but even hacks have freedom of expression, according to the First Amendment. I understand the politics–I just don’t think this guy is any kind of Leni Riefenstal, and therefore isn’t capable of producing anything more than cheap flicks that appeal to a certain slice of the population.

    And, seriously: The “History” Channel is entertainment–not history–and pretty bad entertainment at that. Surnow will fit right in, along with all of the crapola about the Shroud of Turin, Nostradamus, and other claptrap and folderol. (Someone over at Corrente noted that HC is owned by Rupert Murdoch. ‘Nuff said.)


  11. Historiann, I think that the only relevant literature that need be consulted for a Kennedy exquisite corpse would be Wikipedia. In this context, I think “Accuracy” means you have the dates right and the names spelled correctly. Fidelity to the times (or a semblance of Rankean historical empathy) could be achieved by watching a couple Mad Men episodes and consuming numerous martinis before writing one’s bit.


  12. Maybe not just Mad Men, but a few vintage copies of Mad Magazine, too? I’m liking the deep background research on this a LOT already. I can wear my pretty Betty Draper dresses too!

    I think I’ll identify with Joan Kennedy the most. (I’ve always had a deep sympathy with blowsy, boozy blondes. But my screenplay will reveal her to be the smartest person in the room.)


  13. Professional historians and savvy history students can recognize the History Channel is crap, but unfortunately for most TV watchers, the HC is the public face of history. I see nothing wrong with criticizing a hack job openly. I’ve done the same with Oliver Stone.


  14. I liked the History Channel much more back in the days when it basically just ran a bunch of documentaries on World War II. At least that was actual history, though not of the kind that most professional historians focus on.


  15. This seems like an obvious case where “the remedy … is more speech”. As you say, rightwing propaganda (if that is what we’re going to get) will not fall below the level of the History Channel, and if somebody feels strongly enough that the record should be corrected, they should make another TV program that does so.


  16. I don’t think we’re hurting for serious documentary treatment of the Kennedys. Isn’t there a Kennedy-themed movie on PBS’s “The American Experience” series at least four times a year? Narrated by Plagiarist-in-Chief Doris Kearns Goodwin and that guy who does the ominous voiceovers for Frontline. (You know the guy–he’s got a reedy bass, and sounds like he smoked for maybe 15 years but quit some time ago.)

    Here’s what needs to happen: Ken Burns does a documentary on the Kennedys. PBS will never need to show any other history programming ever again! Pledge Week reruns into the 22nd century!!!


  17. Historiann: Mad Magazine is splendid background reading! I forgot about that… My grandfather had a huge stash of Mad magazine. The initial rationale for the subscription was “for the kids” but some reason he kept it going well into the 1980s. I think this says a lot about the social imagination of the greatest generation.


  18. Anything that deflates the baby boomer inflated infatuation balloon that is the good ship Kennedy … I’m for it. Sorenson & Co. unhappiness is probably a sign that something is spot on.



  19. Well, working from Matt L.’s suggestion: I want to see Historiann and the other real historians watch this and either live-blog it or have some kind of blog dissection of it when it airs.

    The History Channel used to have some useful programs, but my comment on it last year was that it had eschewed history for “Haunted History” or “UFO History” or “Big Shiny Man-Gadget History.” Nothing in the past year has made me change my mind about it.


  20. That’s right, Undine–what’s with the haunted houses stuff? Those programs remind me of that bad series on haunted things that Leonard Nimoy hosted back in the 1970s. It totally freaked me out.

    Was it “In Search Of. . . ?” Well, I was in elementary school. It seemed scary to me then.


  21. Whatchu got against preppies, Historiann!?!?

    This tune is much better:

    Sorry, no pecs. Biafra was a skinny pasty fucking dweeb back then, anyway.

    Comrade PhysioProf was at this show:

    The crowd almost killed the fucking band at the end of the show.


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