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JFK Redux: 'American Experience' Doc Explores the Man Behind the Myth

By Robin Lindley

As the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy approaches, American Experience is presenting JFK, a new four-hour documentary on his life on November 11 and 12, 2013 on PBS (the film also streams online through December 11). JFK incorporates new archival material and the comments of Kennedy family members; historians Robert Dallek, Robert Caro and Evan Thomas; administration officials Harris Wofford and John Seigenthaler; civil rights leaders Andrew Young and Julian Bond; and more.

Susan Bellows, the director and producer of the film, and the series producer for American Experience, recently talked about her efforts to uncover the man behind the Kennedy myth and to explore the roots of his strengths and weakness and his path to the presidency. She shaped JFK with writer Mark Zwonitzer and executive producer Mark Samels.

Documentary: There have been many films on the life of Kennedy. How did you want to tell this story?

Susan Bellows: I worked closely with my writer, Mark Zwonitzer, in developing the film's narrative arc. He and I began with the legacies of Kennedy's presidency, his most significant achievements and his impact on American politics, and then worked backwards to understand the forces that shaped him and his actions in those key areas.  For example, Kennedy is known primarily as a foreign policy president. Where did this interest in foreign policy come from? Who were his role models? What experiences shaped his worldviews?

D: What are some of the new resources you uncovered?

SB: In terms of archival material, there have been a lot of new audiotapes and home movies released in the last few years, and personal collections have been opened up to the public. We worked to incorporate as much of that more recent material into the film as we could. This includes some home movies that JFK and his brother made when they traveled for seven weeks throughout Asia and the Middle East in 1951 when he was still a congressman. The footage allows us to see the world he was seeing on that trip. 

We also drew upon newly released Dictaphone audiotapes, which helped create a certain intimacy with JFK in ways that the visual material didn't.           

One thing I found fascinating was what a work in progress he was when he first started out in politics. He was not the skilled orator and politician that we came to know during his years as president. In early appearances on Face the Nation, and in a radio appearance he made when he was fresh out of college to promote his book [Why England Slept—1940], you hear that his pattern of speech was different, his delivery was monotone, and he sounds like he's reading prepared material—far from the extemporaneous speaker we know from his presidency. 


Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library


D: The film notes some of Kennedy's shortcomings such as his poor health and his personal affairs. Has public opinion of him evolved?

SB: His approval ratings remain very high, but the most recent revelations about his womanizing have been hard for a lot of people to take. 

The revelations about the depth of his health problems, which first came out about eight years ago when historian Robert Dallek published his [Kennedy] biography, make him more vulnerable and in some ways more human. They certainly undercut his image as a man of vigor, and that speaks to his duplicity, but learning more about his chronic health problems also deepens our understanding about what drove him. He had come close to death several times by the time he was elected to the Senate and had a sense that his time on earth was limited and he had to make the most of it.

D: Kennedy's need for constant medical treatment may surprise viewers. As president he was getting seven Novocain shots a day for back pain, and he was taking steroids and an array of pain medications. It's stunning he could function at all, let alone appear vigorous and healthy.

SB: Robert Dallek has said he found no indication that Kennedy's medical problems affected his performance in office. He specifically cites the Cuban Missile Crisis; records show he increased doses of some of the medicine he depended on during the crisis, yet throughout the 13 days he sounds completely lucid in the audio recordings of meetings with his top advisors. 



John F. Kennedy leaving hospital on gurney following spinal surgery. Courtesy of Library of Congress. Photo: Dick DeMarsico

D: Viewers may also be surprised at his ruthlessness as a political campaigner and his use of his brother Bobby to attend to dirty work.   

SB: I don't know if I would use the word "ruthless." I think he was a shrewd, competitive politician. As Evan Thomas points out in the film, he did rely on Bobby to play hardball in the campaigns, and while that allowed [JFK] to be a sort of young Lancelot figure floating above nasty politics, it left Bobby to be the very tough, dogged campaigner and fighter.

D: In the 1960 campaign, Kennedy was more hawkish on military spending than his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon.

SB: The 1960 campaign was playing out when there was a heightened sense of competition with the Soviets. Americans were worried that we were falling behind, and Kennedy certainly played to those fears in the campaign. During the campaign, he argued that the best way to deter aggression was to build up our military defense, and his views on that were very much shaped by his own observations of England's weakness in the face of Nazi aggression on the eve of World War II.


Courtesy of Douglas Jones, LOOK Magazine Photographic Collection, Library of Congress


D: Your film opens with a sequence on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which seems a pivot point for the film. Was that focus to show Kennedy's growth as a president in the greatest crisis he faced?

SB: We started the film there because the stakes are at their highest for him at that moment. He's on the brink of what would be both his greatest crisis and his greatest triumph. It allowed us to frame the film with some of the questions people have about Kennedy. Was there substance there? Was he just a superficial playboy whose father had bought him the office? He looked good, but did he have the skills the crisis demanded? And also the fact that some of his own missteps had contributed to the crisis makes it an interesting place to start the film, allowing us to then back up and figure out who was the man with his finger on the button.

D: In the crisis, he stood up to belligerent military advisors and avoided a nuclear war.

SB: Yes, nothing horrified him more than the thought of having to pull the nuclear trigger. He was one of the first presidents to lead the nation at a time when our greatest enemy had the power to annihilate us, and he felt in some regards that that threat trumped all others.

As the film shows, he would use the political capital he'd earned through his successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis to pass the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which is considered one of his most significant achievements.

D: In his American University speech in June 1963, he shared a vision for a world no longer held hostage to nuclear weapons.

SB: I think it is very hard to appreciate today, when the Cold War is part of the distant past, but in 1963 it was unheard of for an American president to propose that we could achieve any kind of arms control agreement with the Soviets and to ask the American people to think of [the Soviets] as not our enemies, but as people just like us. Some historians see it as the beginning of a détente that later presidents could build on.

D: The film notes that our involvement in Vietnam wasn't going well at the time of Kennedy's death. Do you sense that he would have removed US troops from Vietnam?

SB: We intentionally did not engage in speculation about what Kennedy's intentions were in Vietnam had he lived; we focus instead on what actions he did take in Vietnam during his thousand days in office. We establish that he deepened American involvement in Vietnam by increasing financial aid and the number of American advisors there. We also establish his initial support of the military coup, which led to the death of the South Vietnamese president just three weeks before Kennedy's own death. Kennedy gave mixed signals about his intentions in Vietnam in his final months in office, so we refrain from speculating.

D:  Some people may be surprised that Kennedy did not act on civil rights until a few months before his death. 

SB: When he took office, he didn't really believe there was much chance of getting a civil rights bill through Congress, so he made small gestures through, for example, executive orders requiring affirmative action hiring by government contractors.

He was primarily focused on foreign policy concerns, and that took primacy in the first years of his presidency. Dealing with civil rights was a political minefield, and he knew it. He dragged his feet on civil rights, but when he saw that doing nothing posed a greater risk than taking action, he stepped up to the plate and, in a [June 1963] nationally televised address, called for the enactment of the most far-reaching civil rights bill in history.

D: Civil rights leader Julian Bond says in the film that Kennedy saw civil rights protestors as "an irritant."

SB: He didn't want to deal with the Freedom Riders in 1961. He had been in office just four months when they launched their movement to integrate interstate buses. He was very pre-occupied with looming foreign policy challenges—including a pending summit with Nikita Khrushchev, and events in Berlin and Laos. Taking federal action on integration was politically risky, and he put it off. 

D: Your handling of the assassination was deft in focusing not on the shooting but on the reaction to the president's death.

SB: We were clear from the beginning that we weren't going to tell the story of the assassination. The anniversary of his death seemed like an opportunity to examine his life and his presidency, not how he died, and we didn't want to get embroiled in the conspiracy theories swirling around the assassination, which could quickly cloud any assessment of him or his presidency. That said, the archival footage we found of the world learning about and reacting to his death revealed much about the impact of that pivotal moment, so we found a way to include it to bring closure to the story of his life.

D: It's poignant that he was finding his stride as an effective leader in the last year of his presidency, and then he's murdered.

SB: Yes. He viewed his first year in office as a miserable failure but also learned a great deal and clearly grew in the office, as most presidents do. His domestic legislative achievements during his thousand days in office were slim, but it's hard not to feel that there was momentum building after the Cuban Missile Crisis for some of his initiatives, particularly with the successful passage of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. That said, there was a rough road ahead of him in getting civil rights legislation passed and formulating policy in Vietnam, and that would be among the unfinished business of his presidency. 


President Kennedy confers with his brother, Attorney Genereal Robert Kennedy. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library


D:  Is there anything you'd like to add about what you hope viewers take from the film?

SB: In the tradition of the 16 other presidential biographies American Experience has produced, we set out to provide a comprehensive look at JFK's life and presidency and to try to look at who he was, how he shaped the office, and in turn shaped our country.  

As a filmmaker, I wasn't going in with an agenda. The only thing I want people to take away is a deeper understanding of him based on the most recent scholarship and archival material.

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is the features editor for the History News Network, and his writing has appeared in HNN, Writer's Chronicle, Crosscut, Real Change, Re-Markings, NW Lawyer and more.