Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes in "The Kennedys."

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By Jason Apuzzo. Writer John Meroney was kind enough to notify me about his interesting and comprehensive new interview in The Atlantic with Joel Surnow on The Kennedys, the controversial new miniseries that debuts this Sunday, April 3rd on Reelz. The interview is easily the most probing yet with Joel on the subject of The Kennedys, and also on how the series fits in with Joel’s career and overall worldview. I recommend that Libertas readers look through the entire interview, some of the more interesting excerpts of which I’ve put below.

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In the interview, Joel takes pains to explain what he believes to be the true source of the problems the series had in securing distribution: namely, the fact that he himself as the ’showrunner’ is an outspoken conservative. As he says in the interview, speaking of his previous series 24:

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JS: [A]s it became known that I knew Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh, 24 become a problem. I didn’t write every script or divine every single dramatic moment on that series. I had a staff of people who crossed the barriers of left and right. To me, what’s happened [with respect to The Kennedys] is close to some of the things that went on in the 1950s. Instead of asking, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?,” this seems like, “Are you now or have you ever been a friend of a conservative?”

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The “things that went on in the 1950s” Joel refers to here is, of course, The Blacklist. Is that an adequate analogy in this case? Yes, to some extent I think it is – although, in fairness, The Kennedys is going to air (albeit on a smaller network) and, I suspect, will be a success for most everyone involved – including Joel, and Reelz.

I have two basic reactions to Joel’s interview, the first of which is how timid and silly the blocking of this series from The History Channel still appears to be – especially considering that History will apparently still be showing The Kennedys in the UK(!). The bizarre and contradictory nature of that decision is difficult to believe (especially since Joe Kennedy was once Ambassador to the UK), as is almost everything about how the series was handled.

Let me put it this way: not only is it my strong sense that this series isn’t going to harm the Kennedy family image or legacy in any way, my sense is that the Kennedys may actually need shows like this in order to survive in the public’s awareness.

Joel says as much in the interview:

JM: Isn’t it curious how this many decades after John F. Kennedy was sworn-in as president, this family continues to hold sway?

JS: Well, it’s mostly with people more than 45 years old. My teenage children don’t have a clue about the Kennedys, or what Camelot means. It’s not their life. At what point do the Beatles become Benny Goodman—just some relic of the past that has no relevance to one’s life? The Kennedys have almost reached that point. In the year 2050, do you think people will give a shit about the Kennedys? I don’t think so. Obama will be the fascinating figure by then.

This is the basic point, isn’t it? The Kennedy family and its many acolytes – most of whom, dare I say, are getting a bit long in the tooth – seem to be under the impression that the public image of JFK and his family is one that requires no further refreshing or revisiting. In calendar year 2011, however, my sense is that such an attitude is naive. In order to have an even semi-precise recollection of Camelot at this point, one would probably need to be around retirement age. Anyone younger is basically living off someone else’s Boomer nostalgia, hazy facts, bizarre conspiracies about the assassination or Marilyn or The Mob. Long gone is John Kennedy the Cold Warrior, the tax cutter, the combat veteran and visionary who pushed us to the Moon. The President of whom many people on both sides of the political spectrum are still quite proud.

What I think Hollywood’s aging liberal aristocracy doesn’t quite grasp – or perhaps does grasp, but would rather not admit? – is how much nostalgia there is for JFK and his brother even (and perhaps especially) among conservatives like Joel, precisely because the Kennedy brothers may represent the last breed of Democrat who understood America’s place in the world as a beacon of freedom and innovation. Put simply, most conservatives nowadays respect JFK, because he’s the last Democrat they can understand or relate to.

This, I suspect, is what the series’ detractors – like Robert Greenwald – completely miss. Not unlike Reagan, JFK is currently a source of great unity, and liberals should be thrilled that a conservative like Joel would be willing to invest so much of himself in reviving the Kennedy era and its glamorous aura. Who else is doing this right now? As Joel says in the interview:

JM: If you screened this series for the Kennedy family and the program didn’t have your name on it—

JS: I think they’d love it. They would be thrilled and honored to have this as the film that depicts their family. It’s the beginning, middle, and end of Kennedy drama. You’ll never see a better JFK than Greg Kinnear. You’ll never see a better Jacqueline Kennedy than Katie Holmes.

The interview concludes with an interesting line of questioning from John:

JM: There’s a certain romance, sexiness, and even a mythological quality to Democrats that often seems to elude most Republicans, even Ronald Reagan, who came from Hollywood. Why are Democrats so much better at mythmaking?

JS: The Kennedys had youth, glamour, and good looks. That’s not hard to mythologize. Reagan was sixty-nine years old when he was elected. He was a grandpa. He wasn’t a forty-three-year-old movie star-looking guy. Kennedy was killed, tragically. If you want to keep the myth going, be good-looking and die young. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe live on forever.

JM: Do you really think that’s the secret?

JS: It would be hard to mythologize Richard Nixon even if he was a lefty, right? … [Y]ou should never underestimate America’s love for beautiful people.

On balance I agree with what Joel’s saying here, although he’s quite mistaken about Reagan. Conservatives these days are putting all their chips on the Tea Party movement and on a kind of retro-populism, assuming that the public has lost its interest in things like glamour, polish and style. Bad idea. There is an aspirational side to politics that is extremely important. We don’t actually always want to vote for people who look or act ‘just like us’; sometimes we’re actually looking for a bit more, for people cut from a more heroic cloth.

Reagan, in my opinion, was cut from such heroic cloth – and did have a strong element of Hollywood glamour to him, even if he was older. (Tellingly, Reagan’s most ardent following was among young people.) I don’t think it’s true that Reagan was just “grandpa”; he was alive with a youthful optimism about the country and its future, something that was palpable. He was also a cowboy, still comfortable in the saddle – and passionate when combating the Soviets. Frankly, he fit the Kennedy mold – and to some extent surpassed it.

But Joel’s point is well-taken. It would be nice if today’s conservative political ’stars’ didn’t always look like they were beaten by The Ugly Stick, or were bit players from The Beverly Hillbillies.

The Kennedys begins April 3rd on Reelz.

Posted on April 1st, 2011 at 5:26pm.

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19 Responses to “New Interview with Joel Surnow on The Kennedys; Show Debuts Sunday, April 3rd on Reelz”

  1. shinsnake says:

    Yeah, have to disagree with Surnow about Reagan. I was born in 1979 and to me Reagan was the mythical hero that I never knew but always aspired to have as a father. Part of that was my father walking out when I was 7, but a bigger part was that he seemed like he was simultaneously a great friend and a wise man. When I remember how I felt when I learned about the assassination attempt (I was too young to remember it happening at the time), I remember thinking how tough that guy was, how there was nothing that could stop him, not bullets, not a wall, not the press. Of course, obviously no one is unstoppable and alzheimers did stop him, but before all that, he was a superman in real life. And his quips! They never rang as an old man to me.

    Still, he is right that the myth of Kennedy is, in part, due to his youth and his death. Reagan was youthful in his old age, but Kennedy was youth emboldened and had so much potential in his future. It almost seems like Reagan’s pinnacle was the end while Kennedy’s pinnacle was just the beginning. But again, I learned about Kennedy from the myth makers in Hollywood. I lived through Reagan and then heard them try to tell me what he was.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Very much agreed on all points here, Shin. I think Joel’s thoughts on Reagan here are a bit glib, and miss the man. Reagan seemed younger and more vital in old age than Obama currently seems in his 40s. Every speech Obama gives is so dull and deadening, so lawyerly and lacking in passion. Reagan raised the nation’s spirits at a time when that seemed like an impossible challenge, given the scale of the Soviet threat and the economic problems. By contrast all Obama does is bore and hector; his ‘inspiration’ consists in lecturing everyone else about what they are supposed to do, while he himself does so little.

      Everyone after Reagan has been a disappointment to me, but I assume that our free society will eventually turn out another one – or another Kennedy. I didn’t like JFK much at first, but having read more about him and studied a bit I’ve come to admire the man and what he brought to the office. Even Nixon apparently loved the guy.

  2. Vince says:

    I agree with shin’s take on Reagan — the man has definitely taken on greater role in our language, and in the fabric of our conscious. It’s why he’s attacked so often — because he’s now more than an ex-president …. he’s a symbol, and that can’t be tarnished.

    Nixon, on the other hand, is truly a riddle. The guy started out as a hardened anti-communist — the guy brought down Alger Hiss, after all. He also effectively won the war in Vietnam, even if defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by the Democrats and the media. He was became a strong supporter of Israel.

    Then comes the bad Nixon — the one that instituted wage controls, the EPA, and other contributions to the federal leviathan.

    You’re right, Jason: Nixon loved Kennedy in a way, because both men loved their country. You knew that who ever was elected, you were going to be cool. Now, we have a group in the White House consisting of open Marxists, led by a president that boasts his wealth-redistribution intentions and his disdain for freedom-loving countries like Honduras and Israel.

    I guess anyone can become a part of our mythology. Surnow even mentions his relationship his relationship with Roger Ailes, who has become one of the boogie men to the left. I’ve met him on a couple occasions, and you couldn’t find a more personable, down-to-earth individual.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      All good points, Vince. My personal take on Obama, incidentally, is that his primary ideology is narcissism.

      I’d love to know more about Ailes following Fellini around, by the way. That sounds like a hoot … Fox News does often have a carnivalesque, Fellini style to it – no doubt one of the factors in its success. It’s so often a fun channel, when others bore.

  3. jic says:

    In the year 2050, do you think people will give a shit about the Kennedys? I don’t think so. Obama will be the fascinating figure by then.

    Unless he either does something amazing, or something terrible happens to him, I doubt it. His one real ‘achievement’, being the first black president (if you don’t count Bill Clinton), won’t seem important by then, in the same way that most people today don’t appreciate what a huge deal it was at the time that Kennedy was the first Catholic president. He’ll just be an inept president from the past, no more or less important to most people than Jimmy Carter.

    It would be hard to mythologize Richard Nixon even if he was a lefty, right?

    1) Nixon has been heavily mythologized, just as a monster instead of a hero.

    2) I’d say he’s the fourth most left-wing president in modern American history. It’s ironic that one of the left’s biggest bogeymen was on their side more often than not.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      I agree. In historical terms, I think Obama is headed for Carterville.

      • johngaltjkt says:

        Obama is a mile wide and a inch deep. There’s no there there with him. I also believe he’s less popular than people think and he’s not too popular right now. Among certain voters that still tepidly support him, that support is based on a combination of I voted for someone that fits a identity box and I don’t want to be labeled a raciest by being against him.
        What’s needed is someone that people want to vote for instead of just voting against him. The media will provide all the guilt needed in order crush anyone that’s against him and try and shame voters into voting for him again. In 2008, I held my nose and voted for McCain (an atrocious candidate and a RINO) hopefully that will not the case in 2012.

  4. jic says:

    In 2008, I held my nose and voted for McCain (an atrocious candidate and a RINO)

    To my eternal shame, I was fooled by the MSM in 2000 into thinking that John McCain would have been a better Republican candidate than George W. Bush, and ended up wishing that he had become the president instead. So you can imagine how I felt in 2008, long after I learned what kind of man he really was, that I not only had to vote for him, but found myself wishing he had been elected president again!

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Remember Josh, there are no perfect candidates out there! We all do our best, with the choices we’re given.

  5. Harold says:

    Not sure I agree that Republicans/Conservatives are all ugly. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney are both young and movie star good looking.

    I think everyone underestimates the enormous power of effectively at least, a party controlled media that endlessly puts out the party line.

    Just look at Lee Harvey Oswald. A dedicated Communist who defected to the USSR, but after he killed Kennedy the party media immediately tried to promote “the climate of hate” meme, the Hunt brothers, “evil silver brokers”, a deeply paranoid grassy knoll theory. All to conceal the fact that the LEFT killed Kennedy. And I bet most youngsters today have NO idea Kennedy was killed by a Communist.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Good point, Harold – although Oswald remains a murky, mysterious figure. My understanding, incidentally, is that his wife Marina had an uncle who was a KGB colonel. I’m sure that was a complete coincidence. :)

      I wouldn’t call Romney ‘young,’ by the way. He’s 64, although admittedly he’s kept himself in great condition.

  6. Tricia says:

    Defining the “Reagan Mystique” is no doubt a bigger task than parsing Joel’s take on him. However, I think briefly one can talk about Reagan’s ageless appeal that Obama completely lacks and why he won’t be the subject of mini-series in 2050. Reagan – in both manner and content – spoke things that people had long believed and had not heard a leader/politician/statesman say in a long time. Sure if you read Buckley in the papers or subscribed to National Review, you got it, but the general population hadn’t heard anyone speak with passionate conviction about America’s dynamic past, her bedrock principles and virtues, and the shining future that lay ahead of her. The older Americans felt vindicated in their beliefs and the young felt called to step up (as I did as a teenager who LOVED him) and fight for that vision Reagan so plainly saw.

    Obama isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been the progressive/liberal mantra for decades. To some (not me) he may say it well, but the content is tired retread that hasn’t been missing from the public forum in over 40 years. What is lasting about that? Nothing.

  7. Anton Olff says:

    I watched the HBO movie, “The Rat Pack” the other night. Will be interesting to compare it to this series, especially where and if they intersect on the personal life of the Kennedys.

    With the exception of his pro growth tax policies, JFK was not a good President. Like Obama, he was vain and narcissistic. His weaknesses as a leader, meant that we almost had a nuclear war as a result, not to mention the debacles of Cuba and Vietnam. He did very little for civil rights. That was the work of LBJ. RFK was like his father, a ruthless user of people for whom the only end is power.

    I think both Kennedys were whacked by the Mafia, with a little help from Oswald and Sirhan.

  8. Anton Olff says:

    Just watched the first part. I like the whole “Godfather” aspect, with Joe Kennedy Sr. as Don Corleone. In many ways, the real Joe Sr. was.

  9. [...] It is well-worth a read to understand the story behind the story. A highlight [tip of the fedora to Jason Apuzzo]: At what point did you realize that this series was going to be [...]

  10. Anton Olff says:

    OK…having watched six episodes, I can understand why some in the Kennedy family did not like this series. Joe Kennedy is portrayed as a rather harsh and manipulative father whose actions helped his sons gain power, but also may have gotten them killed. However, I thing that really must have upset the keepers of the Camelot myth, was the drug use by Jack and Jackie, with various stimulants (must have been the VIGOR that JFK referred to all the time!!). Moreover, JFK was really not healthy enough to be President and that was hidden from the public.

    As for the portrayals, JFK comes off rather well (Kinnear is really incredible and gets the mannerisms right along with the accent) though Bobby is portrayed as irritating, caustic, though very protective of his brother.

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