John F. Kennedy: After 50 years, we're still fixated

President John F. Kennedy and his daughter, Caroline, President John F. Kennedy and his daughter, Caroline, sail off Hyannis Port, Mass. Photo Credit: AP, 1962

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Fifty years later, we still think about it, read about it and argue about it.

We puzzle over the loose ends, bizarre coincidences and countless "conspiracy" theories.

We can still hear Walter Cronkite's first words, still summon the memory of his glance at a clock off-screen. His glasses, his eyes, his face -- stoic, wracked.

Fifty years later, our obsession continues, and there is no institution better suited to sate obsessions -- or more willing to accommodate them -- than television. Between now and Nov. 22, you can fully expect many films and documentaries on John F. Kennedy's presidency and Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, beginning with tonight's "Killing Kennedy" (National Geographic), starring Rob Lowe as the nation's first made-for-and-by television president -- presented here as all teeth, hair, brains, beauty, charisma and charm, the so-called "optics" that fueled (and continue to fuel) JFK's allure.

Why the continued fixation -- both ours and television's? David Nasaw, City University of New York Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Professor of History -- and author of "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy" -- said in a recent interview, "The visual media is fascinated because there is no other political family or group which exudes a half-century after the assassination the glamour and dignity of the Kennedys."

But Nasaw, a Roslyn native, adds, "There was also something about being gunned down in media res. A thousand days is not a lot of time [and] there seemed to have been at that moment a new start of the presidency, a launch of new initiatives, civil rights, Cold War diplomacy and nuclear test bans. So the 'what ifs' are hanging there, waiting for historians to be grabbed."

The murder of Kennedy also was modern history's ultimate cold case. With the death of Lee Harvey Oswald two days later, Americans were largely left with the work of a commission that few -- even to this day -- trust.

Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia and director of its Center for Politics, as well as author of "The Kennedy Half Century," which explores the ongoing fascination, says, "Based on our own poll, 75 percent of Americans don't believe the Warren Commission, and [as a result] the story will never be over. I don't care what anybody finds, or anyone says. There are over 300 theories already -- everything but a UFO -- and more will be added. A hundred years from now, our great-grandchildren will be watching specials about the Kennedy assassination on whatever it is that will have replaced television by then."

In the meantime, here are five worthy programs that will look into the presidency and that long-ago day in Dallas:

 

JFK: American Experience (WNET/13, tomorrow and Tuesday, 9 p.m.) Over four hours, "AmEx" seeks to frame the Kennedy presidency with modern scholarship, with appraisals by many leading historians, including CUNY's Nasaw, with a rich lode of footage and interviews, including with Jean Kennedy Smith, 85, last surviving child of Joseph Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

MY SAY Suffused with a familiar "Great Man" aura, "JFK" doesn't seek to dislodge the myth or the hero. (Only the first night's program was available for review at deadline.) The stories of Joe, family life, Choate, Harvard, heroism during the war, bruising political campaigns and enduring health problems are all well known and are all here. But "JFK" can only hint at the story it can never tell -- of a life cut short, and a promise unfulfilled. It wants to find meaning in the available record. Don't be too surprised if that remains elusive.

BOTTOM LINE A straightforward examination of the life.

 

NOVA: Cold Case JFK

(WNET/13, Wednesday, 9 p.m.) Can an expert take a 6.5-mm Carcano Model 91/38 rifle -- the same type used by Oswald -- and replicate the crime? Will the three bullets behave in a similar fashion? Can the "Single Bullet theory" -- adopted by the Warren Commission -- be proven? If so, could all of the many conspiracy theories of multiple shooters be rendered unto dust? Ballistics experts Lucien and Michael Haag fire the gun, while a "Nova" forensics team explores the results.

MY SAY "Cold Case" -- expertly produced by "Nova" veteran Rushmore DeNooyer -- makes no promises and reaches no conclusions, beyond what is visible on-screen. This see-for-yourself approach has been done before (including by the Haages), but probably not with the sheer weight of technical prowess brought to bear here. High speed videography... human tissue stimulants... 3-D laser scans of the crime scene... a virtual autopsy...

 

BOTTOM LINE Maybe as close as TV has ever come to proving that Oswald could, in fact, have acted alone. Engrossing.

JFK: ONE P.M. CENTRAL STANDARD TIME (WNET/13, Wednesday, 10 p.m.) Narrator George Clooney says the television news industry "came of age" on Nov. 22, 1963, when Cronkite announced to the nation that the president had died. It's an observation that has been made many times before, but "One P.M." explores why.

MY SAY The legend of Cronkite began on this day, but "One P.M." can't quite make the case that it all came down to that one brief, emotion-choked announcement (at 2:38 ET), indelible as it was. The reason is that Cronkite spent the next several days and nights walking many millions of viewers through what had happened and what continued to happen. The template for the modern TV anchor was forged in that performance -- a calm, just-the-facts fortitude stripped

of speculation and bathos. Cronkite -- and certainly other TV anchors, many unfairly overlooked in the span of time -- helped a country, but modern television news also had a standard-bearer.

BOTTOM LINE Good but incomplete

 

THE DAY KENNEDY DIED (The Smithsonian Channel, Nov. 17, 9 p.m.) Eyewitness accounts include Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who had become Jacqueline Kennedy's personal bodyguard two years before; Phyllis Hall, a nurse at Parkland Hospital who received Kennedy when he arrived; Dr. Robert McClelland, last surviving member of the surgical team that tried to save JFK's life. Also: Wesley Buell Frazier, who worked with Lee Harvey Oswald at the Dallas Book Depository and who drove him to work that day.

MY SAY If you think your memories are sharp, consider theirs: Absolutely uncluttered by 50 years of incessant background noise. There's an eerie calm to "The Day Kennedy Died," as if these eyewitnesses have finally and fully assimilated the tragedy, which makes their words all the more chilling, like Frazier, recalling the car ride to work with Oswald: "I said, 'Will you be coming home with me?' He said, 'I got something to do.' "

BOTTOM LINE Some riveting accounts, plus a clean, well-ordered "tick-tock" of the day.

 

JFK: THE LOST TAPES (Discovery Channel, Nov. 21, 7 p.m.) Hundreds of hours of recordings were culled by Dallas TV and radio stations 50 years ago Nov. 22, and this broadcast collects a few of them.

MY SAY Listening to crackling police dispatches or radio reporters out of breath, this offers the unique impression that the long-ago moment is just beyond reach -- as fresh, as immediate as yesterday. Radio, in fact, has long been an afterthought in the history of assassination media coverage, but viewers of "Tapes" will be reminded that listeners were the first to learn of the shooting. Those tuned to KLIF Radio got the first bulletin at 12:38 CT from Gary DeLaune, who said, "Three shots reportedly were fired at the motorcade of President Kennedy." DeLaune now recalls that just a couple minutes before that, "I shouted out something like, 'Welcome to Dallas, Mr. President,' as they turned the corner" to Dealey Plaza.

BOTTOM LINE Fascinating account from many angles.

 

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More Kennedy programs

Here's a guide to other Kennedy-related programming:

ABC NEWS

A week of "reflection" begins Nov. 17.

Special coverage on all ABC News programs, from "Good Morning America" to "Nightline"

"World News With Diane Sawyer" will have a report on Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Caroline Kennedy on Nov. 22.

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CBS NEWS

CBSNews.com will stream original coverage of the assassination throughout the week.

As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years

(Saturday, 9 p.m.) Bob Schieffer-anchored special on four days "that changed America and American television history."

@Newsday

NBC NEWS

"Today" anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie will be in Dallas for a full week, joined by Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather (who will not appear on CBS' coverage) on the Nov. 22 edition.

Tom Brokaw: Where Were You? (Nov. 22, 9 p.m.) Combines archival footage with first-person stories of those who lived through the assassination.

MSNBC

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The night of Nov. 22 will be devoted to JFK-themed programs, including "Kennedy Brothers: A Hardball Documentary" (8 p.m.) that promises to deconstruct the "myth." (Chris Matthews has written extensively about the Kennedys.)

CNN

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The Sixties: The JFK Assassination (Thursday, 9 p.m.). Examines many of the Warren Commission Report's key conclusions.

PBS

Frontline: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? (Nov. 19, 10 p.m.) Another exploration of the man with the rifle in the book depository.

HISTORY

JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide (Nov. 22, 8 p.m.) An overview of conspiracy theories -- 311 of them, implicating "42 groups, 82 assassins and 214 people."

Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live (Nov. 22, 10 p.m.). Follows Oswald's last movements.

MILITARY CHANNEL

Capturing Oswald

(Tuesday, 10 p.m.) Looks at the work of the Dallas Police Department.

SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL

Kennedy's Suicide Bomber (Nov. 17, 8 p.m.) An intriguing footnote about an aborted attempt to kill Kennedy before he took office.

TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES

Four 1960s-era news documentaries by filmmaker Robert Drew, a founder of "direct cinema," who deployed handheld cameras to chart Kennedy's 1960 campaign and subsequent events during his presidency (Nov. 21, 8 p.m.)

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