The American Experience: Season 5, Episode 1

The Kennedys (Part 1): the Father, 1900-61 (20 Sep. 1992)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary | History
7.8
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Title: The Kennedys (Part 1): the Father, 1900-61 (20 Sep 1992)

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The Fall of Legends.
11 November 2010 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

There seems hardly any reason to go over the details of the Kennedy family history since the general outline, at least, must be familiar to anyone who knows anything about American history. But, okay.

1. Joseph P. Kennedy was the family patriarch, born to a modest family in Boston, who wangled his way to a place near the political peak by honest work, rabid ambition, and chicanery. He got into and through Harvard, which was an accomplishment for a Boston Irishman around 1900. He made a great deal of money by pulling out of the stock market just before it crashed and established a brief but tumultuous career as a Hollywood mogul. He had a large number of children and instilled in the four boys his own need for political achievement, the presidency always a prize scintillating in the distance.

Joseph Kennedy was an industrious Roosevelt supporter and was rewarded not with the Vice Presidency or the cabinet position he coveted, but with an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James. That is, he was our ambassador to England. He didn't particularly like the English and he blew any chances he had for a distinguished career in politics by being an isolationist and speaking out about Hitler's winning the war, and by commandeering space allotted to official materials being sent by ship back to the states and filling the space with crates of liquor to be sent back home. Hitler would win the war, he proclaimed. Good-bye career.

2. Carefully groomed Joe Junior was to be president, but he was killed during a dangerous mission in World War II.

3. The next oldest, casual and good-humored Jack, did in fact become Congressman from Boston, then Senator from Massachusetts, and finally president. He had the inestimable help of his Daddy. Joseph Kennedy actually bribed editors of some Republican newspapers to endorse his son's candidacies. During Jack's initial run for Congress, there was a tough competitor named Rossi on the ballot, which would have read KENNEDY and ROSSI. Joe P. saw to it that another candidate with the same name entered the race, so the ballot now read KENNEDY, ROSSI #1, and ROSSI #2. (Jack won.)

But Jack had more going for him than his father's money or his father's underworld friends. He had an abundance of Irish charm that was perhaps no more than half fake. Here's an example, not from the film but from William Manchester's biography. Manchester and Kennedy are playing chess. Kennedy is clearly going to lose and, in shifting his chair, manages to upset the chess board and spill the pieces all over the floor. Manchester erupts with anger, shouting that the trick "violates all moral parameters." Kennedy is unabashed. He exults over the phrase "violates all moral parameters" and produces a notebook and pencil to write it down for use in a speech some day. Disliking someone like that is to dislike someone like Harpo Marx.

4. After Jack's assassination, the next oldest, the impassioned Robert, ekes out the Senate seat from New York and in the face of the president's continued escalation of the Vietnam war, decides to challenge Johnson in the primaries. He probably wouldn't have won but we'll never know because Robert too is assassinated.

5. The burden of Joseph P. Kennedy's ambition now falls on the youngest son, handsome but troubled Edward Kennedy, who is elected Senator from Massachusetts, presumably the first step to the White House, but blows it when he drinks too much and is involved in a shameful car accident resulting in the death of a pretty young campaign worker.

That's a lot of triumph and a lot of tragedy packed into a generation or two of a Boston Irish family that was originally of little consequence.

The documentary treats all these people and events in a reasonable, balanced, and largely unsentimental manner. A lot of time is given over to the funerals, but then there were a lot of funerals to give time to. And JFK's notorious affairs with ladies met through the pandering of underworld figures is given their due. So is Ted Kennedy's blunder.

I must say it's difficult to sit through a viewing of all those assassinations and funeral rites. Even when presented in their briefer form, as here, they redintegrate all those losses during the 1960s -- and not just the Kennedys.

That's not the fault of the two-part series on the Kennedy family, of course. It's the fault of Fortuna, the director of all things.


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