On the eve of the 30th anniversary of his assassination, the memory of President John F. Kennedy looms larger than life. But that memory is the popular image of a young, vigorous chief executive that transcends his political accomplishments. In the long haul, history may not treat him kindly on the accounts of Cuba's Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and the Berlin Crisis on balance with civil rights and integration.
With each succeeding year, the number of books, documentaries and television dramas increases proportionately; and human nature notwithstanding, there is a growing absorption in dispelling the fantasy of JFK as a Galahad of Camelot. Tonight at 8:00, for instance, ABC will premiere the first chapter of a four-hour miniseries (KTVX, Ch. 4) on Nigel Hamilton's best-selling biography JFK: Reckless Youth. Hamilton worked for five years to produce his story of "the early JFK," but says he was thwarted by family members, "toadies," and various other worshipers at the Kennedy shrine.
"Although the Kennedys promised me help, and I came armed with letters of recommendation--having been the official biographer of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery--it was all baloney on their part," Hamilton said. As John F. Kennedy Scholar and senior fellow at the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Hamilton still remembers with some exasperation the obstacles he faced in embarking on what he hoped would be a definitive three-volume biography on the assassinated president. Speaking from his Boston office, Hamilton explained that he had come to admire JFK more than he thought he would, because of the inner strength the Kennedy second son displayed.
Americans still are tied in knots of emotion, grief and anger, and a perpetual fascination with a conspiracy plot that will go on forever until we learn to come to grips with the truth about the man and his family, Hamilton insists. "Jack Kennedy was a very talented man who did read books, had a sense of humor and understood America was a superpower and must by its nature be an interventionist state. That was directly opposite of what Joe Kennedy, his father, preached. It seemed to me there was a great deal to be proud of in JFK in his early years: his journey as a young man, his gradual turning against his father, his rites of passage in finding his own path in life and not his father's."
Hamilton saw the elder Kennedy as a demon in the family. "He was a dreadful man, Joseph Kennedy. As a Brit, I was amazed at how Jack stopped his father from destroying the Lend-Lease program. I was astonished to find the letter that this 23-year-old boy had written, that saved us, actually saved Lend-Lease and saved Great Britain. (Lend-Lease was an aid program initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt to help countries "resisting aggression." It was in effect while America was supposed to be neutral. Joseph Kennedy was fiercely isolationist and tried to torpedo the plan.) "Joe, you know, was ambassador to London and had great influence. Yet his son stood up to him and won," Hamilton said. "It was not easy."
The struggle to open the way to Kennedy's papers and the reaction from the family since the appearance of JFK: Reckless Youth have taken a toll on Hamilton. He points to other biographers and the lengths to which they have gone to come to grips with their subjects. Stephen Ambrose, for instance, was so involved in writing the life of Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis & Clark exploring team, that he slept on Lewis' grave "to increase his rapport and better commune with the departed spirit."
"I didn't sleep on the grave, I just lived with the character," Hamilton remarked. "Living and working as a college professor in Boston certainly helped me to understand that strangely reckless youth who was destined to become America's first Roman Catholic president."
His experience with the Kennedys has troubled Hamilton. "I honestly don't know if I can go on with the rest of the biography. "I expected the family to be difficult, but I didn't realize how many toadies there were." The toadies, he explained, are those who kept material from him, lied about papers that he asked for and did whatever was necessary to hamper his research. Hamilton also said that while using the Kennedy Library, his "private mail was opened" and disseminated throughout the library. A family lawyer was sent from Washington, Hamilton says, to ask him to "change his tune."
As for the television miniseries, "I haven't seen the film, but I've read the script William Broyles Jr. adapted from the book, and loved it. They've surrendered some of the historical elements behind the story, but it was done for a good cause." In the opening episode, the miniseries sets out to document all the women JFK had bedded by his freshman year at Harvard, presumably the "good cause" for which historical elements were surrendered.
The television production also dwells on JFK's steamy love affair with Inga Arvad, a journalist who was married and Protestant. Hamilton describes her as "the love of Jack Kennedy's whole life"; and, typical of the dark clouds that seemed to float over anything Kennedy, Arvad is labeled a suspected Nazi spy. "JFK didn't just adore Inga, he kept her love letters to the day he died in Dallas. She was the first human being to recognize his presidential aspirations--and not laugh at him!" Because she came to the attention of the FBI, it allowed J. Edgar Hoover to tap her telephones, bug her apartment and read her mail, all the while compiling a hefty dossier on young Kennedy as well.