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FDL Movie Night – Chat With RFK Historian Thurston Clarke About History Channel’s Kennedy Smearfest

Thurston Clarke, author of The Last Campaign: Robert F Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America and FDL Book Salon guest, contributed to a Brave New Films campaign to ask The History Channel to re-think its decision to purchase right-winger Joel Surnow’s “bio-pic” miniseries The Kennedys. Mr Clarke has been kind enough to chat for 90 minutes with FDL readers today about his findings from reviewing the script.

Right-wingers love to tear down the Kennedys; it’s one of their favorite sports. And smearing a central figure in America’s pantheon of Democratic leaders, John F Kennedy, is crucial. If they can reduce the regard with which JFK is held by Americans, the contribution of subsequent family members is correspondingly reduced, in their view. Even further, Democratic party values like encouraging scientific exploration, a strong role for our federal government in civil rights enforcement, and robust diplomacy as a pillar of our national defense: all these are rooted in the Kennedy presidency.

But in a non-reading era when many Americans get their history from television, and trust The History Channel to bring us a true version of events, should The History Channel air a flawed, prurient, and untruthful docu-drama like Surnow’s?

Much like Theodore Sorensen, a first-person witness to conversations portrayed in the script that never actually happened, Thurston Clarke debunks a critical scene between President and Mrs Kennedy, which simply could not have occurred:

We have a scene during the Berlin Crisis, again in 1961, when Jackie has this confrontation with him and says, “I’m gonna take the kids and go to the Cape.” He tries to keep her prisoner in the White House, and this is a big long scene. It’s an important scene in the screenplay; it’s trying to make him out to be this controlling figure and Jackie as someone in a prison who wanted to get out of the White House.

She was already in Cape Cod all summer. She wasn’t in the White House during the Berlin Crisis. He was going up to Cape Cod every weekend to see her. It is a complete and utter fabrication, something made up that bears no resemblance to the truth but is presented to put him in the worst possible light.

Complete and utter fabrications don’t belong on The History Channel, do they?

As a historian, Thurston Clarke is broken-hearted by the presentation of fiction as historical fact:

If you are a historian and you care about the truth, this is very hard stuff to read. And if it is filmed the way it’s written, it will be just heart-breaking.

Mr Clarke warns us that the anniversary of the Kennedy presidency is beginning this year. Alarmingly, this smear job may be the first in a salvo of attempts to tear down the Kennedy presidency, and with it the values it brought forward in American discourse.

And I think this is an effort to derail and tarnish Kennedy before we get to these fiftieth anniversary memorials to his presidency. And I think that is what this is about.

Which raises, I think, a very important point: what are the historical sources for these fictional accounts? Who are the witnesses to these conversations that never occurred? What primary documents and eyewitness reports have been used, or misused, in developing this flawed script? What artificial timelines have been developed to justify the fictions central to the narrative?

And what is any of this doing on The History Channel, anyway? Can historians make a claim of truthfulness on content produced for The History Channel? What expectations should all Americans have that what we see on The History Channel is fact-based?

Please welcome Thurston Clarke in comments; please keep questions and commentary civil and to-the-point of the subject at hand. Thank you!

(To join the Brave New Films campaign to Stop the Kennedy Smears, go here.)

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