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A still from American Experience: JFK, showing John F. Kennedy as a U.S. senator in 1957.
A still from American Experience: JFK, showing John F. Kennedy as a U.S. senator in 1957.

john doyle

As the anniversary approaches, the JFK specials proliferate Add to ...

As readers of a certain age will know, the defining where-were-you question for an entire generation was this: Where were you when you heard that U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated?

I was a little kid watching TV with my sister in a small town in Ireland. All I remember is the bewilderment of the adults. My mother was upset. My dad wasn’t home from work yet and when he arrived, at first he couldn’t take in the news.

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Kennedy had a god-like stature in Ireland. He was not the first U.S. president with Irish roots but he was the first Irish Catholic to be elected to that position. All of his great-grandparents had been born in Ireland. He had visited Ireland just five months before his death and not for a flying, stopover visit. He had spent days there and been worshipped. There was a national day of mourning following his death.

Since then, even for the Irish, the god-like Kennedy aura has evaporated. As Ireland finally changed, so did the picture of Kennedy and the Kennedy family. And yet even as people came to see the deeply flawed man beneath the surface portrait that had been spun to us, he represented something profoundly important – the Irish diaspora sent out upon the tide to America in times of famine, war and brutal deprivation.

One of the TV events airing in Ireland to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination is also airing here. That’s the two-part PBS special American Experience: JFK. (It airs on different PBS stations at different times. WNED, which serves Southern Ontario, will air it on Nov. 22 and Nov. 23.) Narrated by Oliver Platt, it is exhaustive but, as producer Susan Bellows has acknowledged, “John F. Kennedy’s presidency has often defied objective appraisal.”

Thus the four-hour special spends a lot of time building a detailed chronicle that essentially rests on the idea of the distance between the public and the private faces of Kennedy. Time is spent on his childhood illnesses and his ceaseless efforts to appear stronger and more athletic than he was. And yet it doesn’t adore him for his courage and fortitude. The vastness of the Kennedy family wealth is dwelt upon and the life of extreme privilege that Kennedy experienced. Always with American productions of this type, even those made in a clear-eyed way by PBS, there is a tendency to find a graspable, iconic American narrative. This production shies away from that, sometimes asking more questions than can be answered.

Meanwhile, other JFK-related programs continue to pour forth.

Nova: Cold Case JFK (tonight, PBS, 9 p.m.) is hard-going, but will engage those fixated upon the details of the shooting – the ballistics, the gun, the bullets. Using contemporary forensic science it puts the shooting under a microscope and challenges previous investigations. While it claims to do “a fresh investigation into the physical evidence, using state-of-the-art forensics, including laser scanning, new ballistics tests, and a 3-D digital reconstruction of the president’s skull,” it feels too enamoured of the 3-D digital effects and a lot like one of those episodes of CSI that doesn’t actually solve a murder.

Secrets of the Dead: JFK: One PM Central Standard Time (tonight, most PBS stations, 10 p.m.) is narrated by George Clooney and the angle is an untangling of the way in which the assassination broke as a news story on the day it happened. It’s really about Walter Cronkite, who was the same age as Kennedy and had begun as anchor of CBS Evening News just a year before. Cronkite had unusual power for a newscaster in those days – he was also managing editor of the newscast. The program seeks to link Kennedy and Cronkite as “forever intertwined,” but is more interesting as a look at news gathering in 1963.

And in the next few days there are several more JFK specials on the U.S. channels. As It Happened: John F. Kennedy, 50 Years (Saturday, CBS, 9 p.m.) is anchored by Bob Schieffer and it too examines how the news of the assassination was handled, with memories of those involved. Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy (Sunday, TLC, 9 p.m.) has celebrities read some of the 800,000 letters of condolence sent to Jacqueline Kennedy after JFK’s death. Containing home-movie footage of the Kennedy family and footage of JFK’s news conferences, it is far more substantial than most of what TLC airs these days.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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