Christopher Hirst: America still can't handle the truth

For those who are old enough, the violent deaths of the two brothers remain momentous markers in our lives
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The Independent Online

Later this week, the UK History Channel will start showing a £15.5m, eight-hour series on the Kennedy clan. Though its American counterpart was also due to run the epic, US viewers will have to tune in to an obscure station called ReelzChannel.

The inclusion of a seasoning of sex, drugs and crime in the docu-drama prompted the US History Channel to pull the plug, declaring this "dramatic interpretation" was "not a fit for the History brand".

Sex, drugs and crime may have played a part in history, but they don't suit the version on History.

It doesn't matter that Joe Kennedy, the godfather of the clan, made his fortune through bootlegging or that JFK's impressive list of lovers included Marilyn Monroe, the most sought-after woman of her era. The Kennedy dynasty remains a no-go area. Even a modestly revelatory TV series is binned for lèse-majesté. On this side of the Atlantic, it is hard to appreciate the golden glow that still envelops the Kennedys in their homeland.

An insight into the strange, lingering potency of Camelot came in a recent issue of Vanity Fair that devoted 12-and-a-half pages to an account of Jackie Onassis's publishing career.

Though the magazine specialises in hugely extended pieces of investigative reporting, this feature was more in the nature of a hagiography.

Describing her as "a complex Renaissance woman grounded by her professional endeavours and sustained by the bonds of family", writer Greg Lawrence explained how she became an editor with Viking in 1975 after "entering her second widowhood".

A storm in a teacup following Viking's publication of Jeffrey Archer's Shall We Tell the President? (originally based on JFK) prompted her "to denounce the book and its publisher" because "the Kennedy clan had given her plenty of flak". A later job with Doubleday proved more successful, though Lawrence bemoans the fact that the books she worked on have been allowed to go out of print. "We can hope they will somehow survive," he concludes in a sententious flourish, "along with the wisdom she imparted by the example of her own beautiful voyage."

The long echo of the Kennedy era also reverberates in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. In his review of Life by Keith Richards, the poet Dan Chiasson ponders on the Rolling Stones' recording of Sympathy for the Devil in 1968 with Jean-Luc Godard on hand as "recording angel".

When news of Bobby's death in Los Angeles filtered through to the recording studio in Barnes, south-west London, the original lyric: "I shouted out who killed Kennedy?" was simply cast in the plural. Chiasson concludes: "You could argue that for a song that both reflected and fed the cultural frenzy of the moment, Sympathy for the Devil was unprecedented. It is still chilling to hear those lines: 'I shouted out who killed the Kennedys / When after all it was you and me'."

It is even more chilling to come across the stunning photograph that Bill Eppidge took for Life magazine of Bobby Kennedy, stretched out, eyes open, on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Weirdly, he is surrounded by a pool of emptiness, except for hotel waiter Juan Romero cradling his head.

For those who are old enough, the violent deaths of the two brothers remain momentous markers in our lives. This does not mean they cannot appear as figures in unvarnished narratives, but we seem to have moved into a more mawkish, hero-obsessed era. Fortunately, the UK History Channel seems to think that the cold-blooded British can watch The Kennedys without suffering a fit of the vapours. But for how much longer?

The tear-jerking success of The King's Speech suggests that, stateside, sentimentality may have rolled across the Atlantic.