May 2nd, 2018, 06:00 PM

When the White House Was Irish

By Henry Hardwick
Title Sequence, The Kennedys (2011). Image Credit: Muse / Asylum Entertainment
A two-year look back at America's favorite first family fascination.

Nothing says "summer" like the Kennedys. Whether it be Hyannis Port or the White House, the family has always shone with that same glorious light, no matter how short-lived the warm weather may be. When his brother Joe Jr. died in World War II, Edward "Ted" Kennedy recalled in his posthumous memoir True Compass that a young John F. Kennedy (Jack) saying: "Joe wouldn't want us sitting here crying... he would want us to go sailing. Let's go sailing." Even when Ted Kennedy Jr. said they're "just like every other family in America in many ways," his predecessors had already made sure that they'd be remembered as a cut above the rest. Just like the country they immigrated to, the Kennedys possessed exceptionalism in their ambition that led them to seize the American Dream as the ruling family of the golden age "for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

As no strangers to the media, the Kennedys were always in the spotlight, and thus were the ones who knew how to make a "TV image" for themselves. Whether it be patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy crafting Hollywood dreams in Tinseltown or President John F. Kennedy capturing the hearts and minds of a new generation through his live broadcasts, they fascinated the American people unlike any other. From best-selling comedy albums to a playable Call of Duty Nazi Zombie slayer, the Kennedy name has been a commodity just as much as a dynasty. While the nation's always loved her (golden) families, the Kennedy clan holds a special place in the great American experiment due to their ability, as explained in American Dynasties: The Kennedys, "to understand before any other American family the role of glamour."

Bobby Kennedy For President | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

The official trailer for Netflix Original's "Bobby Kennedy for President" (Apr. 27, 2018)

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's 83-day presidential run in 1968 before his abrupt assassination by Palestinian national Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Bobby Kennedy for President is the newest feature in a long lineup featuring America's favorite first family. Having initially shouldered the burden of his brother's death in 1963, Bobby Kennedy's pursuit of the White House wasn't just to bring back Camelot but to help carry the nation through tumultuous times. With the escalation of both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, RFK offered America a glimpse at a brighter future, just as his brother had before him. While incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson will be remembered for "Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?", Bobby was martyred with his platform "for hope instead of despair, for the reconciliation of men."

However, Bobby Kennedy for President doesn't actually revolve around Bobby Kennedy for President. Rather, it's the tale of a central figure who could have changed the course of an entire nation. From his appointment to the Attorney General under the Kennedy administration to his serving as New York senator in 1965, RFK distinguished himself as both a politician and leader by making sure his actions were just as loud as his words. Whether it was saving the country by going to war against the Mafia or against poverty he saw in the Mississippi Delta, the family man of 11 sought to be a father for both the Kennedys and the American people as a whole.

Running a total of four hours across four episodes, Bobby Kennedy for President distinguishes itself by bringing the outside in. Rather than being like the intimate family documentary of his wife Ethel (2012) by his youngest daughter Rory Kennedy, Netflix brings Bobby back to life through an assortment of vintage footage and selective interviews that show things not only as they were seen in relation to Bobby, but how they were seen in regard to the nation. Centered in the midst of one of America's greatest tipping points, Bobby Kennedy serves as a reminder of what the country once stood for (when we need to be reminded of it the most).

Chappaquiddick - Official Trailer

The official trailer for Chappaquiddick (Apr. 6, 2018)

While the "awful [Kennedy] curse" has seemingly entered the American lexicon just as easily as it has followed the family, Chappaquiddick (2018) is a different kind of tragedy. As the point of no return for Senator Edward Kennedy (Teddy), this tragedy was when the Kennedys caused death rather than experienced it. After driving off a bridge with RFK campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne just off of Martha's Vineyard, Teddy managed to escape the car without her and did not report the accident for nearly 10 hours. Attributing the delay to a minor concussion and shock, the devil was in the details as diver John Farrar's testified that "she died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die. I could have had her out of that car twenty-five minutes after I got the call. But he didn't call."

Nearly 50 years later, not a day goes by that Chappaquiddick doesn't seem to haunt the Kennedys in one way or another. Even after his crusade for "quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege" for all American people in the wake of his son Patrick's bone cancer amputation, Chappaquiddick forever marred Ted Kennedy's legacy from his 1980 presidential campaign to his personal life. Although renowned as "The Lion of the Senate" for championing human rightsChappaquiddick makes sure to pull out all the stops when it comes to portraying him as an aggressive force, rather than a hardy rampart.

Running a total of 101 minutes, not a single one goes by without the reminder that Chappaquiddick was an accident, in that it could have been prevented. Not only damning Ted's career, it killed Mary Jo and any solace her family could have received. By pulling strings with the Roman Catholic Church to ensure a hasty funeral, it wasn't just the Kopechnes finding forgiveness and accepting God's will - it was the Kennedys burying the evidence before an autopsy could be made leading to a manslaughter charge. Whether or not justice was served in the end, a half-century of unrelenting turmoil culminates into the newest feature film regarding American royalty in one of its darkest hours.

American Dynasties: The Kennedys

The official trailer for CNN's American Dynasties: The Kennedys (Mar. 11, 2018)

Beginning with the humble beginnings of the family's exodus from "Irish peasantry to American royalty," the torch is passed from one survivor to the next in CNN's American Dynasties: The Kennedys. Just like their actions, their portrayal is a "full family affair" that encompasses everything from historical records to insight from members of the Kennedy clan itself. Juxtaposing family video reels with recreations and interviews with narratives, the six-part series is extremely ambitious in the scope and perception that it offers on the family.

In a manner unlike any other, the documentary is often stranger than fiction in its revelation of both the ambitions and struggles of the family. Bereft of normality, the construction of Joseph Sr.'s ambitions are seen in the way that his family operates. Taught to take what they want "every time and at any cost," such philosophy is seen in both the magnificence and the recklessness of the opulent saga. Rather than acting such out, American Dynasties avoids charade by directly addressing the haunting realities of the family. For instance, after receiving news of his wife having a stillbirth, JFK returns to America from France. Claims were made that "he didn't come back because he wanted to be with Jackie, he came back because he wanted to make sure he wasn't damaging his chances for an eventual presidency."

With each of the six episodes running approximately 42 minutes (minus commercial breaks), it's a healthy, moderate dose of both drama and education. Whether you want to trace the Kennedy family tree from the Emerald Necklace to the Emerald Isle or watch JFK grab his friend's wife's derrière to the chagrin of Jackie on a honeymoon home movie, American Dynasties reveals the family in all their glory and fault. Telling a tale in which "ambition, wealth, power were only the beginning," the series is a retrospective look back at when the American Dream gave way to an American nightmare for the entire nation.

The Kennedys - After Camelot Coming 2017

The official trailer for The Kennedys: After Camelot (Apr. 2, 2017)

As the sequel to the Emmy award-winning series The Kennedys (2011), After Camelot encircles the life of the sole remaining son of Camelot: Ted Kennedy. Tying in with the finale of its prequel, the series begins by picking up on the final moments of the Bobby Kennedy campaign before his assassination at the Ambassador Hotel following the California Primary of 1968. Between the controversies of Ted Kennedy's political career and Jackie Kennedy's attempt to find solace in marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis to provide a better life for her children Caroline and John F, Kennedy Jr. (John John), the series portrays the often-forgotten aftermath of a family who once had it all.

Told under the harshest of lights, the show is a historical fiction drama where some creative license is a given. In regard to the original miniseries, the History Channel refused to air it in the States because "this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand." Nevertheless, The Kennedys hits closer to home than any other because it tackles the family in a manner unlike any other. Through subtle combinations of live action, filtered cinematography, and authentic historic film, the series portrays a variety of perspectives in order to encapsulate one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

Running a total of 190 minutes, each of the four episodes (approx. 47 minutes) in the two-part series rightfully bears the ambition of its namesake. Spanning a total of 31 years between Bobby Kennedy's death in 1968 and John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death in 1999, the series is not only marked by tragedy after tragedy, but the triumph of the family in its ability to overcome such events. From games of touch football at the Kennedy compound and somersaults on the sands of Skorpios to Joan and Ted Kennedy's struggle with alcoholism and Onassis's breakdown as he blames Jackie for the death of his only son, there's never a dull moment in the Kennedy household.


The Official Teaser Trailer for Jackie (Dec. 9, 2016) 

In her aim to make her late husband's memory eternal, Jackie makes sure to pull out all the stops in this theatrical memorial where "[she] lost Jack somewhere - What was real? What was performance?" It's a personal insight into the construction of a grieving widow as the whole world watched and waited for instructions to follow. Demanding that the interview be "edited" to her preference, the tale that Jackie spins is the one she wants Jack to be remembered by. Settling for nothing less than "the long, grand procession" such as Abraham Lincoln's, Jackie's construction was not only of a funeral narrative but a national narrative. With the departing of a dream, the words "There will never be another Camelot" have been immortalized, but the moments in which they were said are neglected.

With Jackie claiming that television allows for people to see things for "their own eyes," the film purposefully recreates the White House widow in her entirety - from the trauma to the glamour of the beloved First Lady. Through the reconstruction of the famous national broadcast  A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy (1962), a stark contrast of the showcasing in black-and-white and film crew in color mirrors the juxtaposition of the interview process, Jackie's flashbacks, and the moments surrounding her husband's assassination. With intense cinematic orchestration, the abrupt shift in scenes and angles are used to create a certain dissonance in order to best portray Jackie as she attempts to look back at a world she can't leave behind.

With a running time of 100 minutes, the film is nothing more than the tale surrounding Jackie Kennedy's construction of Camelot, and nothing less than a traumatic experience of a woman returning to suffer through the darkest moments of her life. The film is unlike the others in its painful portrayal of the Kennedys' Icarus plight. Rather, the old proverb "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" holds true in a film that shows how the work that went into the First Family mourning is no longer at play. It opts for a disheveled woman oft-renowned for her public image of composure rather than the rambunctious happenings of the corresponding men that once ruled the world. The film is not meant to be taken for entertainment, and it is not meant to be taken lightheartedly. Rather, it wholeheartedly serves as a drama and a tragedy as Jackie conveys to its audience what Jackie conveyed to her's.

The Crown | Jackie Fever: The Kennedy's Visit To Buckingham Palace | Netflix

"Jackie Fever" promotional trailer from The Crown, Season 2 (Jan. 31, 2018). 

Of course, when the Kennedys aren't center-stage, they're not afraid to steal the scene. Following in the footsteps of JFK's successor, the films LBJ (Nov. 3, 2017) and HBO's All the Way (May 21, 2016) tell the story of (Vice) President Lyndon B. Johnson and how he assumed the presidency in the wake of JFK's assassination in Dallas, Texas. While Jack had already set change in motion with his involvement in desegregation and the Cold War (i.e. The Berlin Wall, The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, etc.), LBJ was forced to confront counterculture and social revolution at full force as the decade of change came to fruition.

Even before their deaths, the Kennedys were looking like death in "Dear Mrs. Kennedy" (Dec. 8, 2017), an episode in Season 2 of the Netflix Original series The Crown.  Even with the glamour and wit of the "man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris," not even the Kennedy facade could hide away a staunch allusion to the drugs administered to both President and Mrs. Kennedy by Dr. Max Jacobson, i.e. "Dr. Feelgood." Of course, such also offers insight into the complication of portraying complicated people; especially when the complications include "[Jackie's] post-natal depression, her husband's philandering and their drug regimes."

Whether you decide to spend your summers at the Capital of the Cape or just want to rock that Cape Cod beach bod vicariously, you too can join in on the family fun with "Bobby and Jackie and Jack." With a lifetime supply of Kennedy media on hand, and much more to come (e.g. A Letter From Rosemary Kennedy), all it takes is a binge-watch or two to follow in their footsteps. Whether it be the immigrant tale of rags to riches, an inspiration for a new generation of change, or just because "I thought he was a macho, womanizing stud who conquered the moon," every inch of the way is transmitted straight from their household into yours.


GFK prom montage from Clone High, Episode 12 (Feb. 3, 2003).