PBS’ ‘JFK’ imparts an extraordinary sense of Kennedy as a man, president

Posted by Brooke Cain on November 10, 2013 

Senator John F. Kennedy in Boston, 1957.

COURTESY OF DOUGLAS JONES, LOOK MAGAZINE PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

There are three words I don't recall hearing in the entirety of "American Experience: JFK," a two-part, four-hour documentary special that begins Monday at 9 on UNC-TV and concludes the following night: Lee Harvey Oswald.

Of course, the shadow of Oswald and his assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, hangs over nearly every frame of "JFK," but it's oddly satisfying that the special focuses so intently on Kennedy's life and presidency, and not on the horrors of Dallas nor the controversies that followed.

Instead, "JFK" imparts an extraordinary sense of Kennedy both as a man (as a son, husband and father) and as a young, perhaps naive president. His shortcomings -- particularly in his presidency -- are not glossed over. Historians and former aides discuss his handling of Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement with a great deal of honesty. And the reckless nature of his many affairs and the toll those affairs took on his marriage are mentioned, but not detailed in a gross, tabloid way. This is PBS, after all.

There's a terrific amount of detail about Kennedy's youth -- his many illnesses, his complex relationship with his father and siblings, his rebellious nature, the genesis of his passion for international politics, his heroics in World War II and his early political campaigns are all covered in part one. The second installment focuses entirely on the brief years of his presidency.

In the end, more than anything, "JFK" leaves the viewer wondering what might have been, as Kennedy was seemingly just coming into his own as a president (and also perhaps also, as a husband?). Contemplating that immense promise, so cruelly snatched, is sad enough without having to bear one more look at Oswald's smug face.

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