WASHINGTON—They don’t hold public office anymore. And the once mighty electoral machine that could make a winning politician of anyone with the name Kennedy is long gone, too.
Yet just when it seemed safe to declare the Kennedys a spent force in American politics, the mythic dynasty demonstrated its enduring clout just last week, effectively pulling the plug, temporarily at least, on the U.S. broadcast of an upcoming eight-part TV miniseries purported to show the men of the family at their womanizing, pill-popping worst.
The backroom arm-twisting, by most accounts orchestrated by family matriarch Caroline Kennedy and her California cousin, Maria Shriver, prompted the History Channel to disavow its own Toronto-shot finished product.
And while the series will air anyway — in Canada and 30 other countries in March, and soon thereafter on a different U.S. broadcaster, its makers insists — the fact that the Kennedys were able to bend the airwaves to their will surprised many in Washington.
“There may be no Kennedys left in public office, but clearly the clout is still there. Not visible, very much behind the scenes, but still getting the results the family desires,” said Vincent Bzdek, author of The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled.
“To me, the most interesting thing about the Kennedy legacy is that right now, it doesn’t matter that no Kennedys hold office because so many of the levers of power in Washington are in the hands of people inspired by the Kennedy ideal.”
That was especially apparent Thursday night at — where else? — the Kennedy Center, Washington’s premier arts venue, where President Barack Obama led a grand gala tribute to John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his inaugural address.
With 90 members of the Kennedy clan in the audience, Obama more than hinted at parallels between his presidency and that of JFK, drawing laughter and applause with the line, “I can only imagine how he must have felt entering the Oval Office in turbulent times.”
The night featured, among many others, performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a 69-year-old Paul Simon, who sang The Sounds of Silence, written only months after Kennedy’s November, 1963, assassination. “Hello darkness, my old friend . . . .”
A few years ago much was made of the Obama/Kennedy continuum, from the family’s high-profile endorsement of Obama over then-rival Hillary Clinton all the way to the selection of Bo, the White House dog — a gift from the ailing Ted Kennedy. An era of resurgence liberalism, a new Camelot, even, was the hope of many in those breathless first days of the Obama administration.
Two years later, with the political winds blowing hard the other way, many see that Kennedyesque moment as largely over. And there is even an argument to be made that Obama’s problems today stem largely from what was effectively a deathbed promise to Ted Kennedy.
“The Kennedy endorsement was critical for Obama. And the price Ted extracted was that Obama make the push for health care reform his top priority,” said Bzdek.
“It had the import of a dying wish. Obama lived up to his part of the bargain. And in some ways you can attribute all of Obama’s problems stemming from that promise, because that’s when the country seemed to pivot away from resurgent liberalism. Health care was the flashpoint.
“But looking at it another way, you have to count this moment as another huge part of the Kennedy legacy and enduring power today. This is a hugely significant piece of social legislation, maybe the most important in 25 years. And the Kennedy imprint is all over it.”
Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, is not ready to declare the Kennedys a spent force. But he suggests that most coverage of the family — coverage of the TV miniseries dispute, in particular — tends to wildly exaggerate Kennedy power.
“It’s not like there is a Kennedy police force out there. And it is not like the Kennedys have managed to stop much of anything else, considering the number of books and websites that focus on uncomfortable elements of the family history and the gossip that surrounds it,” said Ornstein.
“That said, there is a fierce — and I would also argue, understandable — protectiveness about the Kennedy legacy. This family is intensely sensitive to things written and, especially, things televised that they see as unfairly slurring the family.”
The Montreal-based production company behind the miniseries, Muse Entertainment, is refusing comment on the controversy in order not to disrupt negotiations to find another U.S. broadcaster.
“There have been stories claiming there were inaccuracies and we have not been able to really defend ourselves and we would certainly like to, to set the record straight,” a company spokesperson told the Toronto Star.
The trade paper the Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, this week obtained and viewed the first episode of the eight-part series and declared it, “Less sensationalistic and controversial, less concerned with the embarrassing aspects of the Kennedy lifestyle and more focused on moving along a compelling narrative.”
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar with Washington’s Brookings Institution, notes that the Kennedys have a long history of seeking to influence the historical record and has little doubt a similar pressure was brought to bear on the TV miniseries.
“The Kennedys are voracious in protecting their reputations and sense of nobility. It is a fact not in dispute,” Hess told the Star.
“But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether these filmmakers set themselves up for trouble by claiming they would attain a degree of historical accuracy that film almost never achieves.”
But the film flap seems more controversial today, coming in an era of particularly fierce partisanship, he said.
“And the other dimension is that a great deal of the academic history profession does tilt liberal,” said Hess. “I’m not saying presidential historians are playing by a double-standard. Yet I somehow doubt they would be quite so ferocious if this was a project based on the story of Richard Nixon.”
What would a young Kennedy make of it all? For now, none are saying. And none among the dozens of next-generation offspring now coming of age appear inclined to raise their profile to offer themselves as the next Kennedy for public office.
“There are actually several generations out there — all of them quiet, politically. For now,” said Ornstein.
“Will any of them come around? I have to think some, eventually, are going to be inspired by the family’s legacy of public service. There is unquestionably still power in the Kennedy name. My guess is we haven’t seen the last of them in office.”