The Curse of the Kennedys: Fatal Ambition

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During the summer of 2018 I was approached by Elephant House productions and asked to contribute to a new, two-part documentary series detailing the history of the Kennedy family.

Thirty years ago, TV documentaries on the Kennedy family first inspired my interest in US politics, so it means a great deal to have been invited to contribute to this project.

The show has now been aired in the UK on Channel 5 and I am delighted to share the results of this with you. I hope you enjoy

The Curse of the Kennedys: Fatal Ambition Part One

The Curse of the Kennedys: Fatal Ambition Part Two

 

Parkland and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination

Following an article that I was widely quoted in that appeared in the Metro newspaper recently, I was invited to attend a screening of the movie, Parkland, at the American Embassy in London. The film addresses the immediate aftermath of the ambush that awaited President Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and is named after the hospital that tended all too briefly to JFK.

The first hour of the film appears to proceed in virtual real time, with the action (if that is the appropriate word) focused on the events in Trauma Room One and the frantic efforts to resuscitate the stricken chief executive. For the remaining 35 minutes or so, the movie speeds through the events of the following 2 days culminating in the simultaneous funerals of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin.

Much like the 2006 movie Bobby, Parkland feels like a small, independent movie, packed to the rafters with A-C list Hollywood actors, eager to be associated with the Kennedy legacy. As with Bobby, Parkland suffers as a direct result since one is all too often thinking, ‘Oh look, it’s (fill in the blank) in a funny hat.’  The movie also suffers from a lack of direction or obvious intent: It is never clear what the message of the movie is meant to be or who it is aimed at. It is certainly moving in places but this a result of the storyline more than the actual movie itself. As always, Paul Giamatti is excellent in his work as Abraham Zapruder, less successful, however, is Billy Bob Thornton, who as always, plays Billy Bob Thornton, this time in a hat and suit that appear 2 sizes too small and seems to be in a little movie all by himself, never quite appearing to be part of the wider events portrayed on screen.

Parkland continues the recent attempt to move away from focusing upon the graphical content of the Zapruder film, despite this being at the centre of the film. This is a strange decision, but far from the only challenging aspect to the film: For a movie that seems to want to stress it’s grasp of detail it singularly fails to include an appearance by Abraham Zapruder on American television that destroyed weekend.

The role of the FBI is singularly unquestioned. No mention is mentioned of the memo that was sent to every FBI field office on the eve of the assassination, warning of a threat to the president. Even the destruction of evidence linking Oswald to the FBI, which began that weekend, is presented in a very matter of fact manner, and not as part of a far larger effort to destroy evidence.

Despite the vast about of achieve footage of the doomed motorcade, hardly any is utilised, presumably due to the cost involved. This however, removes what could have been an interesting way in which to present the interaction between the president and everyday Texans as he glided to his untimely end. Considering the effort of the film to address the murder through the eyes of average citizens, this would have been a logical and effective addition.

Missing also from the film’s use of archive footage is the scene at Love Field when secret service agents were ordered to stand down from the presidential limousine. Missing entirely is the figure of Clint Hill, the sole secret service agent who leapt to action as the bullets were fired.

Vitally, at no point is Oswald’s innocence raised in a serious fashion. Only Oswald’s mother holds out the possibility that there may be more behind the shooting than meets the eye, but she is routinely portrayed as being unstable. Indeed, the widely addressed conspiracy theories are only raised as straw men, to be demolished by Oswald’s brother Robert. No serious consideration is given to any debate or discussion surrounding the assassination.

Parkland singularly fails to develop upon the myriad tales of individual involvement in the aftermath of the shooting or how the events impacted the rest of their lives. Clearly, many involved never recovered and never moved on from the events portrayed in the movie. As with Bobby, there were many interesting stories that could have been told around the historic event, but this is not one of them. Indeed, there really is no story at the centre of the movie. The medical team in Trauma Room One in particular were haunted by the events and their actions and reactions questioned and investigated ever since. This would have been a tale to tell, but one that may have required greater acting capacity than provided by Zac Efron, whose doe eyed look is the extent of his emotional range.

The release of Parkland raises a serious issue surrounding the portrayal of the assassination on film. In the decade following the president’s murder, a series of movies emerged that directly challenged the official version of events. These included Executive Action, Winter Kills and The Parallax View. Then came JFK, Oliver Stone’s behemoth that brought the events to a new generation and which resulted in the release of a slew of previously unreleased documents. However, in the years that have followed, challenges to the official record have disappeared. Parkland is only the latest in a series of cinematic recreations that blindly accept the lone gunman theory despite the fact that this has been directly challenged by a House Committee investigation in the late 1970s.

The movie fits into a very strange and increasingly conservative interpretation of the assassination and indeed, Kennedy’s life and legacy. 25 years ago, in 1988, it was not only permissible, but encouraged to look for complexity and contradictions in the official verdict and several programs aired that claimed to name second gunmen. While these efforts clearly went too far and were revealed to be flawed, they did at least seek to present a series of dilemmas that are at the heart of the assassination to the wider public. This is no longer the case. 2013 has revealed a near total failure to challenge the Warren Commission and indeed, has served merely to reinforce some of the more bizarre and far-fetched findings of that troubled report. It is indeed a strange world when a president can be killed in suspicious circumstances and it is those who are asking the difficult questions that are portrayed as being nutcases….

JDB on JFK 50

On November 22, 2013, I was deeply moved to participate in the BBC’s coverage of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I made a series of appearances on both BBC World News and on the BBC News Channel throughout the day, starting at 12:30 and ending at 20:30 as the station reflected on events from 1963 and the ensuing impact on US politics.

I was gratified to be able to work with the likes of Stephen Sackur, Nick Bryant and Tim Wilcox, as well as with the former White House correspondent for Time Magazine, Jef McAllister. Having watched Martin Sixmith’s report on the BBC news reflecting on the 25th anniversary in 1988 it was a poignant moment to be working with the BBC to mark this solemn occasion.

Whilst the BBC’s coverage of events was admirable, the ceremony designed to do so in Dallas was a travesty that appeared more to mourn the impact that the events had on the city than on the loss of the young president and the implications that this had for the nation and the world.

It was, in many ways, all too appropriate, for it reminded us of the manner in which Kennedy’s style, grace and charm was extinguished and replaced with Texan BBQ and crass antics 50 years ago.

Those chosen to speak clearly had no knowledge or interest in Kennedy; what he stood for, or what he sought to achieve. This was, along with move of the television coverage in general this week, an attempt to whitewash history and to deny certain truths. No mention was made, for example, of the Texan schoolchildren who cheered upon hearing the news of the shooting, having been raised in a climate of loathing toward the president in a city known then as The Hate Capital of Dixie. The clergy, tasked with reflecting on JFK, chose to use words initially spoken by George Bernard Shaw, adopted by RFK during his ill-fated campaign in 1968 and used so memorably in Ted Kennedy’s speech at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Great words, but singularly unconnected with JFK. Asking David McCullough to speak was also strange. A gifted author and orator, but again, where was the Kennedy connection?

The crass nature of the remarks, the glib attempt at a memorial service made a mockery of the events being observed. Hardly any surprise that no one intimately associated with the family was represented.

The death of President Kennedy was a dark day in the history of the United States and one whose impact is all too often forgotten. The ceremony in Dallas did little to improve the city’s standing and served only, perhaps, to remind us further of what was lost 50 years ago.

Obama and Cameron on the Road to Damascus

During his all too brief time as president, John F. Kennedy was understood to have lamented the difficulty he faced in making the threat of American power credible. ‘The place to do so,’ he speculated, ‘is in Vietnam.’ Whether JFK would have escalated the war as LBJ did is impossible to know. What is all too apparent is that President Obama faces a similar dilemma today in regard to US credibility due to events in Syria.

US prevarication over Syria has raised a series of questions regarding the potential decline of US global influence and in relation to the general competence of the Obama administration. Many of these questions are appropriate, but let us consider for a moment the position of the White House.

The Obama administration came to power on the basis that it was not George W. Bush. Now safely into his second term, Barack Obama does not wish to perpetuate any suggestion that he is merely continuing previous policies, despite the many suggestions to this effect.

The world had grown accustomed to George W. Bush’s cowboy style and rhetoric, even if it didn’t necessarily approve. By way of contrast, Barack Obama’s cool and detached demeanour appears all the more distinct and withdrawn from the passions of the moment and presents the impression of a lack of engagement or emotional commitment, which may well be at odds with reality.

Whatever one makes of the Obama administration, it did not come to office to slay foreign dragons. It has withdrawn from Iraq and is set to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obama, unlike his predecessor, can be accused of being a withdrawer, but not an invader, and he appears content with this position. When military action has been required, such as in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, he has demonstrated a willingness to act, although this always appears to be the last option and one that is delayed as long as possible. After George W. Bush, seen by many as being too trigger-happy, such a stance may be welcomed. However, it now appears to many that Obama is going too far in the opposite direction to prove his non-Bush credentials.

A similar situation is playing out in Downing Street. David Cameron may have referred to himself as the heir to Blair but he cannot afford for that impression to take hold in regard to military operations of this type. The Prime Minister has overhauled the UK’s national security architecture in a deliberate attempt to prevent decisions involving the deployment of British forces being made on the Downing Street sofa. The new UK National Security Council, with its American name if not necessarily its political or military muscle, is an indication of Cameron’s clear intent to do things differently from Blair. On one level, at least, it seems to be working. No one hears reference to Cameron being Obama’s poodle.

One thing is certain; neither President Obama nor indeed the United States, can afford to use Weapons of Mass Destruction as a pretext for war in another Middle East nation. No wonder, therefore, that the administration is treading carefully. Just as in the early days of the lead up to the war in Iraq, there are in weapons inspectors on the ground seeking access to chemical weapons sites and scenes of atrocities. Getting them to these sites must be a priority. For Assad to deny them access would be seen by many as tantamount to an admiration of guilt that would be very difficult for his allies to justify.

Another challenge for the Obama administration is that this crisis is breaking at the exact time that official Washington is on vacation. Congress is out of town and so is the president, merrily golfing in Massachusetts. Alas, Obama’s protagonists are not waiting for the president and his team to get off the golf courses or the beaches, and are moving ahead with their nefarious plans. This is not to say that the American government is closed for business and we need to be careful not to focus too heavily on the actions of the president. His ambassador to the UN maybe AWOL, but Defence Secretary Hagel has been busy manoeuvring US assets into place should they be required, while Secretary of State Kerry has been quietly engaging in diplomacy to line up key actors should the shooting start. Alas, his second term did not begin well in terms of getting a foreign policy team in place and recent events have done little to inspire confidence.

Whatever happens next, the entire situation bears an uncanny resemblance to events surrounding Bosnia in the 1990s. Then, as now, a Democratic administration in Washington faced intense international criticism for allowing bloodshed to occur. Then, as now, the White House desired United Nations’ approval for military intervention, only to be blocked by Russian vetoes. Ultimately, the Clinton administration tuned to NATO and acted militarily, commencing the move away from the UN and towards a US embrace of NATO as its foreign policy instrument of choice; a journey that began several years before George W. Bush came to power.

A similar situation presents itself to us today. Russian and Chinese intransigence ensures that the UN Security Council will be an unlikely venue in which to resolve this situation. UK Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham believes that the Russians will be moved by the latest images to emerge from Syria, but this is to misunderstand Russia and its motivating factors. No one ever accused the Russians, or indeed Putin, of acting on sentiment. Putin has repeatedly rebuffed US advances throughout Obama’s term in office and recent events surrounding Edward Snowden have not improved matters. Russia will act to advance its national interest and so long as Assad’s Syria remains Russia’s ally in the region, his regime will not lightly be overturned, unlike Mubarak’s in Egypt. Russia, along with Iran, has much to lose with the fall of Assad and is more than capable of blocking any diplomatic solution, forcing the British and the Americans to ponder military action that neither nation seriously wishes to entertain. Iran’s statement today will only exacerbate this developing situation.

The rush to war may be occurring at a snail’s pace for those on the receiving end of Assad’s cruelty, but it certainly appears to be ramping up this weekend.

“Ich bin Ein Bland Speaker”: Barack Obama in Berlin

Today, Barack Obama became the latest American President to make the time honored mistake of travelling to Berlin with President Kennedy’s 1963 speech still ringing in his ears. Speaking almost 50 years to the day since President Kennedy spoke to a million Berliners from City Hall, Barack Obama sought to emulate the fallen hero of Camelot and came up short. Well short.

Where Kennedy delivered a short speech filled with emotion and passion, scribbled together on a flight over the Atlantic, Obama gave a cool and detached address that appeared to have been written by a committee and which was noticeably devoid of any resounding lines of its own or indeed original thought.

This was perhaps, a speech for its time, just as Kennedy’s was. Except that when Kennedy spoke it was to a divided city and a divided world and his voice gave hope and reassurance that the United States would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Berlin and the free world in the hour of maximum danger. That was the theme of the day, the moment and the era. In contrast, Obama delivered an aimless, meandering address that desperately lacked a center. To quote Churchill, like a poor dessert, it lacked a theme.

Obama suggested that this generation should not, indeed could not, rest on the laurels of the past generation or merely reflect on history. And yet he offered no specific sense of direction or a road map for the future, which was, of course, Kennedy’s genius. Instead, he delivered a smorgasbord of half-baked ideas and platitudes about co-existence. Climate change, nuclear disarmament, gay right, women’s rights, poverty reduction, economic rejuvenation, international trade, curing AIDS: All were covered in a speech that had no theme except its desire to be all things to all people. It was a liberal wish list of aspirations for an ideal world and totally at odds with the history of the last decade. Obama is, as he pointedly reminded the crowd, President of the United States and has been now for so long that he is into his second term. Yet his wish list of aspirations contained no sense that he felt any responsibility or capability to enact them or that he had done since January 2009.

The speech was high on expectations but low on delivery and lacking in passion. Time and again, Obama made direct or oblique reference to speeches of the past, but said nothing memorable himself. In fact, his repeated effort to quote from the past merely reinforced the vapid nature of his own remarks. Obama wisely referred to Kennedy’s other remarks from 1963, but in so doing, he failed to instill a sense of passion for the fallen icon, remorse at his passing or any of the vision that Kennedy inspired that day and in the years that followed.

Obama quoted Madison, Kant, Kennedy and King, yet in a speech that was staged on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, with his back to West Berlin, meters away from where Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall that divided the city and the world, Obama failed to mention the importance of the Gipper’s remarks, in what was a poor move that revealed the sad state of partisan American politics.

Obama’s delivery was faltering and it was notable that he was speaking to the crowd through 6 inches of armored glass from a text and not from a teleprompter. Maybe the sunlight prevented the auto-cue from working, but again, it was noticeable how dependent he is on the technology to deliver on the big occasions and how off his game he is when it fails.

“A world of Peace with Justice” emerged as a theme towards the end of the address, but this seemed forced. The loudest cheer came with the call to close Gitmo, but again, Obama has been president for 5 years, a time that has seen the magic luster compared to his last visit in 2008. There was a clear effort to address anger in regard to the NSA eavesdropping in the final section, but this received scant attention or response from the crowd.

It was, all in all, a remarkably unremarkable address.