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PBS, like many media outlets, has big plans to honor the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy‘s assassination. The Nov. 22, 1963, death of the 35th president will be handled with a week of programming starting Nov. 11. And while much of it will delve into the tragic events — special episodes of NOVA and Secrets of the Dead in particular — a two-part installment of American Experience’s The Presidents series will avoid them completely.
Producers Susan Bellows and Mark Samels, historians Tim Naftali and Sally Bedell Smith and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend appeared during Wednesday’s Television Critics Association press tour, where they spoke about making use of new footage and scholarship and the challenges of explaining the Cold War to an unfamiliar generation.
“The reason there is so much more to tell than there was 10, or even five years ago is that he taped 500 hours of his own conversations and much of that has only been made available now,” said Naftali, author of 2001’s John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises. “For people interested in Kennedy, it’s not just people coming to terms with this iconic figure, the data is so much broader. It makes for a stronger, subtler picture.”
The picture they paint avoids the assassination and pop culture moments — there are no mentions of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” — instead focusing on the rise of the media-friendly White House and Kennedy’s distinctive career in foreign policy.
“There are hard decisions to make when you’re telling a portrait of a man whose life was as rich an fascinating as JFK’s,” said Bellows. “There’s a fascinating learning curve during his presidency. The Bay of Pigs was a low point, but he learned and he was a different person by the time he came to the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Depicting tensions between America and the U.S.S.R., as Naftali sees it, is the most difficult aspect to telling the story of Kennedy to younger viewers.
“The biggest challenge for us explaining the cold war is the physiological element,” he said, noting that some details can’t be expressed by facts. “I think we’re looking at this, trying to be a comprehensive portrait that’s drawing on all of the latest scholarship.”
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is among the Kennedy family members interviewed in American Experience, also addressed how the family is readying for the onslaught of coverage and attention as the 50th anniversary of her uncle’s death approaches. Her own father, Robert F. Kennedy, was killed in 1968.
“About a month ago, 35 members of my family went to Ireland to remember President Kennedy’s visit there, and I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotionally rich that experience was going to be,” she said, saying they enjoy history’s affection for JFK. “The more we learn about how wonderful he was as a president, I think it’s a rewarding experience for all of us.”
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