Twenty years after: TV networks air retrospectives of the Kennedy era
In a virtual orgy of posthumous eulogizing, American television is preparing to commemorate one of the most infamous days in recent American history: the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy. Every network, as well as many local stations, is planning programs - mostly documentaries but in one case a dramatization.
Is it, perhaps, cynical to wonder if there would be quite so much time devoted to the subject if the anniversary did not occur right in the middle of the rating ''sweeps'' period? That's when advertising rates for local stations for the next three months are set, based upon current audience ratings. It is a time when high ratings are most important . . . and programs about JFK have traditionally proved to be ratings successes.
First to get to market is Being With John F. Kennedy (syndicated mostly on independent stations throughout November; check local listings for day and hour) , which contains the most candid and intimate material. Co-producer/host Nancy Dickerson narrates from professional experience - she not only served as a newswoman on CBS and NBC during JFK's political career, but she also knew Mr. Kennedy on a personal level.
The two-hour documentary, co-produced with cinema verite filmmaker Robert L. Drew, draws upon extraordinary footage Mr. Drew shot when his Drew Associates crew was allowed into the Kennedy inner sanctum to shoot the family at work and play. Interspersed with the candid footage is solid newsreel film which rounds out the story of the Kennedy career, filled in with precise commentary from Ms. Dickerson.
All those lovely candid shots you may remember are there - on the beach with John Jr., on the steps of the White House with Bobby, Jacqueline Kennedy's supportive presence on many foreign trips.
''Being With JFK'' tries not to hero-worship, but, despite a nice try to be impartial, somehow the Camelot syndrome slips through. Its portrait of JFK is of a man who accomplished a lot and was on his way to accomplishing much more. His failures seem to be played down.
All in all, however, this documentary manages the seemingly impossible: It retains its charm at the same time it makes important historical points and presents an honestly personal point of view. ABC'S 'JFK'
Although JFK (ABC, Friday, Nov. 11, 9-11 p.m.) airs 11 days before the actual anniversary in an attempt to beat the other networks, it may well turn out to be the milestone show, the classic JFK retrospective.
The documentary sets a high goal for itself, which, according to Executive Producer Pamela Hill, is a ''significant analysis of President Kennedy's handling of critical issues . . . a dispassionate assessment of the successes and failure of his presidency.''
Well, ''JFK'' fulfills that promise . . . and more. As the helicopter-borne cameras survey the Hyannisport compound, the film gets off to a portentous start , then proceeds to take the measure of JFK with the help of excellent newsreel footage and interviews with such people as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Walt Rostow, and Maxwell Taylor, as well as Russian generals and nuclear advisers. Pierre Salinger, JFK's press secretary and now ABC foreign correspondent, and ABC anchor man Peter Jennings lead much of the analysis, with historian James MacGregor Burns functioning as on-camera commentator as well as general consultant.
It is a compelling story, told with solid facts laced with compassion. And, despite the presence of many admitted JFK admirers, there is no attempt to whitewash the failures, no cover-up of the JFK miscalculations in Vietnam, for instance. If there is a major fault, it is the almost complete playing down of the role of Jacqueline Kennedy, who appears almost as an afterthought.
If there is any sort of summing up, perhaps it can be found in the words of Lord Harlech, British ambassador to the United States in 1961-65: ''Everybody liked being led by the United States at that time. They liked to have President Kennedy as the leader of the Western world. That was his major triumph.''
And, in conclusion, the words of historian Burns: ''What haunts us about Kennedy is that he was aspiring so high, even with his failures, and we all like to feel that we're aspiring. . . . Just as we have had opportunities lost to us personally, he had his supreme opportunity lost to him because of his assassination.''
''JFK'' is as nonpartisan as such a grim celebration can be. Certainly, it is now and then a bit too pat in some conclusions, too judgmental in its perspective. But this splendidly majestic documentary has nevertheless managed to capture the essence of John F. Kennedy and put it on film for posterity. And still more JFK
NBC is taking a completely different approach to the JFK story. Kennedy (Sunday, Nov. 20, 8-11 p.m.; Monday, Nov. 21, 9-11 p.m.; Tuesday, Nov. 22, 9-11 p.m.) is a seven-hour dramatization of JFK's presidential years. Unlike the above two documentaries, which handle the actual assassination with extreme delicacy, ''Kennedy'' is re-creating the actual circumstances of the event, complete with the Dallas motorcade.
Produced for NBC by England's Central Independent Television, in association with Alan Landsburg productions, the miniseries features Martin Sheen as JFK and Blair Brown as Jacqueline. Both are fine, sensitive actors, but from the few scenes I have previewed of the series, all indications point to a melodramatic, near-caricature of the people and the events.
It's an ambitious project in which some top British production talent is involved. I wonder, though, if British privacy and libel laws would allow such a docudrama - which seems to take so many liberties with the truth - to be made in England about a British figure.
NBC has also announced that Roger Mudd, who's been absent from the screen of late, will anchor a three-hour The Funeral of John F. Kennedy: A Remembrance special to air on the morning of the same day as the miniseries (Sunday, Nov. 20 , 9 a.m.-noon). Even the greatest admirers of JFK may find the six hours of commemorative programming in one day just a bit too much.
There will be other JFK programming. Already the five NBC-owned-and-operated stations around the country have announced a special of their own: Moment of Crisis (Saturday, Nov. 19, 7-7:30 p.m., check local listings). It will deal with the four tumultuous days following the assassination.
CBS plans to devote the cover story on ''Sunday Morning'' Nov. 20 to JFK, and both the ''CBS Morning News'' and the ''CBS Evening News'' are planning multipart series on JFK during their regular programming throughout the week of Nov. 21.
And undoubtedly as the day approaches, more will be announced.
One ironic thought: Wouldn't John F. Kennedy himself, who always had to fight so hard for good television exposure after the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate made everybody aware of its value, be amused by this flood of unsolicited JFK coverage on American TV?