American Experience Profiles JFK Tonight and Tomorrow Night on PBS


Senator John F. Kennedy in Boston, circa 1957. Photo: Douglas Jones. Photo collection, Library of Congress.

It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.  As a kid, in 1960, I vividly remember standing anxiously with my family and friends in front of our neighborhood White Castle hamburger joint waiting for Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to arrive.  As his motorcade passed by, he stood and waved at us from an open car; we waved back and took photos and then gorged on White Castle burgers.  It was a great day.

I also remember vividly where I was in November 1963, three short years later, when the news came over our school intercom that President Kennedy had been shot:  I was in health class and our instructor proceeded to turn the tragedy into a teachable moment about gunshot wounds.  I don’t remember a thing she said. 

The days that followed were spent in grim silence in front of our TV watching nonstop black and white news coverage (CBS TV’s Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather were our eyes and ears) of the aftermath, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s ascent to the Presidency, the assassination of JFK’s supposed assassin and the President’s funeral to follow.  It was almost impossible to turn away from the TV or take time to eat or sleep.  The sun might have been shining throughout the ordeal, but I only remember it being cloudy and grey.   

As we approach the 50th anniversary of that awful day in November 1963 and the days that followed, we are about to be inundated with media coverage of the event and the Kennedy legacy.  American Experience gets the ball rolling tonight and tomorrow night with JFK, its latest installment in The Presidents series.  (JFK premieres in two parts on PBS on Monday and Tuesday, November 11 and 12, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET, check local listings for regional and repeat airtimes).

Produced and directed by Susan Bellows for WGBH, Boston, JFK takes John F. Kennedy from childhood privilege, lackluster scholarship, crippling illnesses and wartime heroics through to his rise in the local and national political arena, his pivotal meeting and marriage to Jackie and election to the Presidency.  A host of notable historians, journalists, a niece and a few former JFK colleagues recall and reflect upon JFK’s life, work, flaws and legacy. 

Bellows’ two-part, four-hour miniseries, JFK, clearly owes much to Ken Burns, even going so far as incorporating a David McCullough sound-alike as narrator (actor Oliver Platt).  But Bellows’ roster of high minds, while accomplished, include a few who, most especially in Part 1, are incredibly cloying in their reverence for this child of wealth and privilege.  One erudite fellow, the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum no less, is particularly annoying when he improbably and with great panache relates personal family anecdotes and dialogue he could never have been privy to. 


Caroline and her dad share a picture perfect moment. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library.

JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, takes center stage in Part 1 and is clearly depicted as the relentless mastermind of his son’s career.  But, aside from his political misstep as Ambassador to Great Britain preceding our entry into WWII, Joe’s early life and darker side and impact (as role model) on the man JFK would become is never touched upon.  

If you find the anecdotes and family footage in Part 1 a tad too reverential, I encourage you to stick with this documentary and tune in tomorrow night for Part 2 (premiering on PBS, Tuesday, November 12, 9:00-11:00 p.m., ET, check local listings), when the stardust clears and several of the historians, journalists and JFK colleagues from Part 1 return to seriously analyze the challenges JFK faced during his short-lived presidency.  They are tough and hold no prisoners as they provide (alongside a rich compilation of period footage) a riveting picture of the flawed dynamics as well as the promise President JFK would exhibit during the Bay of Pigs catastrophe, Cuban Missile Crisis, escalating Civil Rights confrontations, and our entry into Southeast Asia. 

There are surprises to be gleaned in Part 2 as well, regarding JFK’s fascinating powerplay with Nikita Khrushchev, the shadowy backstage role played by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the cover-ups and dangerous implications of JFK’s heavy use of steroids as painkillers and serial dalliance with women throughout the country and overseas who were not his wife. The reminder of how close we came to nuclear annihilation and how JFK defused it is, by far, one of the most important aspects of this fine film. 

I was programmed to fear A-bombs (via our duck and cover drills in grade school), and I admit to begging my dad to build a bomb shelter in our backyard. But as I stood munching White Castle’s faux hamburgers as a kid back in 1960, I saw JFK as a breath of fresh air.  I could never imagine the political missteps, sexual addiction and over-use of steroids that would plague his life and administration to come.  I know this now; but I also know that thanks to JFK, we never needed that bomb shelter and we had 50 more years to live and grow and enjoy hamburgers or veggie burgers as the case may be.  (And, amazingly, that White Castle of my youth is still standing and thriving!)–Judith Trojan

(American Experience: JFK premieres in two parts on PBS on Monday and Tuesday, November 11 and 12, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET, check local listings for regional and repeat airtimes).

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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2 Responses to American Experience Profiles JFK Tonight and Tomorrow Night on PBS

  1. spflack says:

    Beautiful piece, thanks Judith for helping us remember this poignant piece of history. Well done!


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