ICONOGRAPHY / A clan for all seasons: A new television documentary series shatters the movie-fed myths surrounding the Kennedy clan. John Lyttle reports

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'HE WAS a genius at public relations' intones the exquisitely neutral voice-over. Cut to Joseph Kennedy, 'the richest Irish-American on earth', as an ancient, hissing newsreel reveals him absorbed in his role of chairman of the United States Maritime Commission, pontificating to an awed press. He is supposed to be talking shipping, fleets and such. What he's really doing is re-inventing himself, and his past as a stock-market manipulator. For Joe spoke no more than the truth when he chuckled to his growing brood, 'It's not what you are, it's what people think you are that counts.'

The power of the media to create a desirable illusion is the irresistible subtext of Thames Television's The Kennedys. The four-part documentary on the clan can be seen as epic, hubris-driven tragedy or as Dynasty-derived soap opera (all that power, sex and cash); either way, it's a harsh corrective to decades of mythology. Certainly, it plays to the gallery, but why not? The Kennedys were expert manipulators of public expectation long before Jackie belatedly twinned her dead husband's administration with King Arthur's Camelot, by way of the grandiose Broadway musical.

For a time, Joe Kennedy was involved in Hollywood, producing low-budget, low- quality but heavily promoted movies. In the heart of the dream machine, he learned about disguising a product's deficiencies and satisfying audience cravings. It was a lesson he would pass on to his sons once Joe realised that his destiny - to be the first Catholic President of the United States - had been derailed by his opposition to American entry into the Second World War. He also found time to romance Gloria Swanson, the reigning sex goddess of the era - another example for his male progeny to follow, although John's interest in famous female flesh was, as his actor brother-in-law Peter Lawford explained, tempered by the desire to grasp the mechanics of charisma. 'Jack was very interested in that blinding magnetism these screen personalities had. What exactly was it? How did you go about acquiring it? How did you make it work for you? . . . He wouldn't let go of the subject.'

Indeed, Jack Kennedy's understanding of the power of the image grew so acute that he turned to Lawford on the eve of his nationally televised debates with the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, for advice on projection. Dark make-up, dark suit, and a blue shirt suggested Lawford, adding, 'Don't be afraid of the camera. You'll be making contact with millions of people at the same moment, but each one will feel as though you're talking only to him.' The sweaty, shifty, grey-garbed Nixon faded into the studio background. Radio listeners would vote the debate a draw, but the upstart medium of television somehow made handsome Jack more real, the perfect leader for the age of mass communication. Kennedy, the movie-star president, was indirectly responsible for Ronald Reagan, merely an acting President. He changed American politics forever by proving that presidents could be, as Theodore White insisted in the title of his campaign study, made.

Given his skill at manipulating his image, it seems almost fitting that he should have simultaneously died and been immortalised on celluloid. The fact that it's amateur film only brings him closer to the fans: ask Oliver Stone, whose JFK spent millions recreating the assassination on the original locations, desperate to recapture the first dread thrill of the Zapruder footage. For years the press had suppressed information about his academic record, his perennial ill health, his sexual infidelities (Kennedy once pawed a startled Marlene Dietrich in the White House elevator) and his rumoured Mafia connections; martyrdom in Dallas made such considerations largely irrelevant. By the time of the state funeral Jack Kennedy the symbol had already supplanted Jack Kennedy the flawed hedonist. It's not what you are, it's what people think you are that counts.

The heroic image has proven surprisingly durable, despite a slow, steady leak of starkly contrary information. In the films Executive Action (1973) and JFK (1991) the President becomes both documentary fact - rewound, edited, analysed and speculated upon in traditional obsessive conspiracy buff manner - and Young God Cut Down By Cruel Fate, a figure beyond criticism. But it is cinema's natural tendency to deify, especially when constrained by real events.

The roman a clef at least offers room for manoeuvre. William Richert's film Winter Kills (1979) cleverly allows Kennedy the Christ treatment - he is caught solely in tantalising glimpses - allowing a paranoid script to suggest that corrupt and corrupting Joe (John Huston) ordered his wayward child's murder when he refused to play along with the Mob. Brian de Palma's Blow Out (1981) seems less daring, mainly because the Kennedy here is mainly Edward (the gimmick being that he, not Mary Jo Kopechne, is the victim at Chappaquiddick, a hit made to look like an accident). Yet when an aide pleads for discretion, he's speaking for Jack and Bobby too: 'Do you want his wife to know he died with his hand up a young girl's skirt?'

But these bizarrely accurate silver screen vulgarities are preferable to the timidity of television. The 1983 mini-series Kennedy, which starred Martin Sheen, tied itself into knots trying to reconcile Saint Jack with Jack the Zipper. The FBI chief J Edgar Hoover is cast as the disgusting heavy, taping and slobbering over the brothers' sexual peccadilloes, thus eliminating the need to peek at the President and the Attorney-General with their trousers down. Similar denial techniques are employed in the TV movie Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and the mini-series A Woman Called Jackie. James Franciscus - recycling his performance as 'Jack Cassidy' in J Lee Thompson's The Greek Tycoon (1978) - and Stephen Collins are talked about in frankly unflattering terms, but there is practically no visual incriminating evidence.

It's only when the Kennedys are supporting characters in other celebrity lives, or confined to learned books, that a sense of proportion is introduced. Onassis: the Richest Man in the World turns the clan into bit players, mean and manipulative, lively and charming, sweet and sour. Francesca Annis's Jackie, a high society ice goddess on a spending spree, certainly attracts more sympathy than the cardboard cut-out impersonated by Blair Brown, Jaclyn Smith et al. Then again, women seldom received more than second billing from the Kennedys - not even Marilyn Monroe.

It's somehow shocking to be talking about the Kennedys entirely in terms of representation, but strangely appropriate, too. Perhaps things would have been different if Jack and Bobby had survived the bullets; but maybe the accumulation of affairs, secret deals, botched covert operations, drunken behaviour and rape trials would still have reduced the Kennedys to tabloid fodder.

Yet Jack Kennedy's true legacy - the magical gift of pleasing appearance - lingers on. Just watch as the impeccably groomed Governor Bill Clinton enters the Democratic convention hall, radiating youthful vigour, breaking down promises of a better tomorrow into noble sound-bites (and having to deny rumours of extra-marital involvement). Then flip channels and catch the advertisements for Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins's film about a Republican senatorial candidate employing showbiz knowhow to wow gullible voters. You know where you saw it first.

'The Kennedys' begins next Tuesday, 13 October, 10.40pm ITV.

(Photographs omitted)

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