For the serious biographer, history and the life story of a real individual are inseparably intertwined. Get the facts wrong, or distort them, and the life story gets distorted: becomes fiction. That is why, although a "critic of the Kennedys" as I was often labeled, I agreed to be interviewed last year for Robert Greenwald's protest film, Stop the Kennedy Smears, along with Ted Sorensen and others.
At first, when Greenwald's office sent me the proposed script of The Kennedys, I balked.
"Why?" I was asked.
"It's just the usual trash-TV," I said. "It's trash entertainment! What did you expect?"
"But Nigel: the series is being made for the History Channel! It's the first full drama series they've ever made! It will set the tone, the level of accuracy or inaccuracy, for the rest of the channel's existence! And it's being funded by a right-wing conservative, Joel Surnow!"
Put that way, I grew alarmed. Some of the History Channel's documentaries involve docudrama segments, and are highly speculative -- but there seems, on the part of the producers, to be a real determination to get at the history behind our past -- not the sex, which is left to drama shows and entertainment channels.
I re-read the script -- and found myself appalled, not only at the historical license taken by the writer, Stephen Kronish, but by the deliberate misrepresentations -- especially of my hero, JFK.
In publishing JFK: Reckless Youth almost twenty years ago I had gotten into trouble myself with the Kennedys. Not because of my portrait of JFK -- which was highly laudatory -- but because I had described his parents, Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, in less than flattering terms. The family leaned upon well-known historians such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Doris Goodwin, to write protest letters to the press. JFK's surviving siblings -- save for Rosemary, who had been lobotomized on the orders of her father -- all signed a denunciatory op-ed article in the New York Times, drafted by Schlesinger, and titled: "Reckless Biography." My mail was broken into, and circulated, at the National Archives' JFK Library in Boston, and I was warned that no Kennedy-era official or friend would be "allowed" to speak to me for my proposed sequel, recording the rest of JFK's life. Pained -- since I had loved researching and writing the first volume -- I returned to England and taught college.
How that memory has flooded back in recent days, as news came through of the cancellation of The Kennedys for the History Channel! For years I would get letters and emails, almost every week, begging me to take up my pen and continue my biography. But for me, the memory of the Kennedys' reception remained bleak, and I had felt no desire to go back there and incur such wrath. I continued to teach, wrote other biographies -- including a two-volume life of President Clinton -- and two small works on the history and practice of biography.
"Why? Why won't you write the sequel?" I am still asked, today. And my answer is the same as in 1992: that I loved writing Reckless Youth, and the love I felt had been expressed in my portrait of the gangly, wild young man who would capture the heart of the nation - and the world. Without that delight in portraiture, the book would be sterile, I argued. And besides, the very people I would have interviewed again -- Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Burke Marshall, Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy -- have now all passed away.
Which brings me to the core of my objection to Joel Surnow's show, The Kennedys -- namely its travesty of biography, not just history.
Clearly, Stephen Kronish, the scriptwriter, had never read my JFK, though it was a NYT bestseller in 1992, and spawned an ABC television miniseries, scripted by the wonderful writer Bill Broyles, the next year, starring Patrick Dempsey. Instead, Kronish seemed intent upon hewing to a sort of 1950s Republican party line: namely that JFK was merely the spoiled, playboy son of an American billionaire bent on political power for himself. JFK, in that scenario, was therefore characterized by Kronish as a loser, uninterested in politics and only co-opted against his will upon the death of his elder brother, Joe Jr., in 1944.
What nonsense! No wonder, I reflected as I re-read the Kronish script, it was marked as the product of "Asylum Entertainment" at the bottom of the title page! And how sad to miss the real drama of the Kennedys: namely the way that JFK single-handedly turned the rest of his family from proto-Republicanism to liberalism! After all, his father had returned from his ambassadorship to England determined to derail President Roosevelt's re-election in the fall of 1940; Joe Jr. had become a prominent American Firster, and voted against President Roosevelt's renomination as Democratic party candidate - and Robert Kennedy even worked for Joe McCarthy. How JFK managed to turn his family leftwards rather than further to the right, without alienating his father or his brothers, is the true stuff of the Kennedys' history - and was nowhere to be found in the script: a script that never even mentioned PT 109, where JFK showed exemplary courage and leadership in war!
The fact that FBI transcripts, extensively quoted in my biography, show JFK was planning not only a future in politics already in 1940, four years before the death of his brother, but was aiming at winning the presidency, one day; the fact that he was a diehard supporter of President Roosevelt, and even persuaded his father, Ambassador Kennedy, not to speak against the Lend-Lease bill, which allowed Britain to hold out alone against the Nazis in the fateful year of 1941 -- of this, there was nothing in Mr. Kronish's script!
Relentlessly and titillatingly, Kronish's script flitted from sexual escapade to escapade, trivializing history as it did so -- causing me to wonder if it had been commissioned by National Enquirer rather than the History Channel. And later: was it possible that having reduced great historical events to the most juvenile of accretions, the script had left out the Cuban Missile Crisis: possibly the most important example of presidential leadership since World War II?
Portraying JFK as a bumbling, pragmatic drug-addict was pretty sick, I felt -- and thus agreed to be interviewed for Greenwald's protest film, which was widely seen on MSNBC and YouTube. Michael Wolff, biographer of Rupert Murdoch and writer for Vanity Fair, mocked me (rightly) as the "spluttering Brit", and saw nothing wrong with the History Channel showing the series; so too was the response of Andrew Roberts, the conservative "court historian" of the George W. Bush administration, on BBC Radio. Neither of them had read the proposed script, however -- and neither of them knows the first thing about JFK.
If you admire JFK's idealism and the spirit of civility and hope that he inspired in our nation (I can say "our", proudly, now that I am an American citizen), you will be appalled by Kronish's endlessly salacious entertainment at JFK's posthumous expense. Shame on him for accepting the dubious currency of a right-wing conservative, pursuing a Democratic-trashing agenda. I'm not promising to write JFK 2 -- but one day, I might!
Nigel Hamilton's JFK: Reckless Youth is still available in paperback, as is the ABC miniseries of the same name, via Netflix or video stores. Chapter 4 of his new book, American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale), covers both the public and private life of John F. Kennedy, whom Hamilton considers "the last of the great Caesars."