by Nigel Hamilton at Huffington Post on January 18, 2011
For the serious biographer, history and the life story of a real individual are inseparably intertwined. Get the facts wrong, or distort them, and the life story gets distorted: becomes fiction. That is why, although a “critic of the Kennedys” as I was often labeled, I agreed to be interviewed last year for Robert Greenwald’s protest film, Stop the Kennedy Smears, along with Ted Sorensen and others.
At first, when Greenwald’s office sent me the proposed script of The Kennedys, I balked.
“Why?” I was asked.
“It’s just the usual trash-TV,” I said. “It’s trash entertainment! What did you expect?”
“But Nigel: the series is being made for the History Channel! It’s the first full drama series they’ve ever made! It will set the tone, the level of accuracy or inaccuracy, for the rest of the channel’s existence! And it’s being funded by a right-wing conservative, Joel Surnow!”
Put that way, I grew alarmed. Some of the History Channel’s documentaries involve docudrama segments, and are highly speculative — but there seems, on the part of the producers, to be a real determination to get at the history behind our past — not the sex, which is left to drama shows and entertainment channels.
I re-read the script — and found myself appalled, not only at the historical license taken by the writer, Stephen Kronish, but by the deliberate misrepresentations — especially of my hero, JFK.
In publishing JFK: Reckless Youth almost twenty years ago I had gotten into trouble myself with the Kennedys. Not because of my portrait of JFK — which was highly laudatory — but because I had described his parents, Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, in less than flattering terms. The family leaned upon well-known historians such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Doris Goodwin, to write protest letters to the press. JFK’s surviving siblings — save for Rosemary, who had been lobotomized on the orders of her father — all signed a denunciatory op-ed article in the New York Times, drafted by Schlesinger, and titled: “Reckless Biography.” My mail was broken into, and circulated, at the National Archives’ JFK Library in Boston, and I was warned that no Kennedy-era official or friend would be “allowed” to speak to me for my proposed sequel, recording the rest of JFK’s life. Pained — since I had loved researching and writing the first volume — I returned to England and taught college.
How that memory has flooded back in recent days, as news came through of the cancellation of The Kennedys for the History Channel! For years I would get letters and emails, almost every week, begging me to take up my pen and continue my biography. But for me, the memory of the Kennedys’ reception remained bleak, and I had felt no desire to go back there and incur such wrath. I continued to teach, wrote other biographies — including a two-volume life of President Clinton — and two small works on the history and practice of biography.
“Why? Why won’t you write the sequel?” I am still asked, today. And my answer is the same as in 1992: that I loved writing Reckless Youth, and the love I felt had been expressed in my portrait of the gangly, wild young man who would capture the heart of the nation – and the world. Without that delight in portraiture, the book would be sterile, I argued. And besides, the very people I would have interviewed again — Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Burke Marshall, Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy — have now all passed away.