Written by Barbara Perry, Gerald L. Baliles Professor and Director of Presidential Studies, UVA’s Miller Center. She is the author of Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier and Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.
In the very same week of the Academy Awards, I have my own opportunity to strut down the red carpet. Well, not exactly, but it’s as close as this professor will ever come to attending a film premiere in which I play a role. Thursday evening in Washington, the Smithsonian Associates are screening the first episode of CNN’s six-part documentary, The Kennedys, as part of the network’s political dynasty series. I will offer remarks following the show, along with fellow UVA alum and author, Evan Thomas (Law ‘77). The series debuts nationwide on CNN, Sunday, March 11, at 9 p.m., ET. If you are a Kennedy aficionado, and, believe me, there are a lot of us out there, or, even if you are just curious, tune in. And fire up your DVR’s for all half-dozen episodes of this most compelling American political tale:
March 11, 9 p.m. ET/PT: Part One: The Power of Wealth
March 18, 9 p.m. ET/PT: Part Two: The Path to Power
March 25, 9 p.m. ET/PT: Part Three: Brothers in Arms
April 1, 9 p.m. ET/PT: Part Four: Family Secrets
April 8, 9 p.m. ET/PT: Part Five: The Legend of Camelot
April 15, 9 p.m. ET/PT: Part Six: The Legacy
The network has provided three trailers and promos to whet your appetite, and you can bookmark the Miller Center’s dedicated page for the series:
- CNN – American Dynasties: The Kennedys: https://edition.cnn.com/shows/the-kennedys-american-dynasties
- American Dynasties: The Kennedys Promo: http://bit.ly/2nS176Q
- American Dynasties: The Kennedys Promo (set to Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”): https://www.raw.co.uk/american-dynasties-kennedys#showreel
- Miller Center: https://millercenter.org/american-dynasties-kennedys
Can there possibly be anything new to add to the well-worn story of America’s most storied dynasty? Don’t we know all too well their prodigious triumphs and Shakespearean tragedies? Having spent two days interviewing with the British production company, Raw, which created the documentary, I can answer yes, without having yet seen the entire series. The producers were most impressive in their depth of research and understanding of the family’s role in American history. They asked me to join the enterprise because they wanted more emphasis on the dynasty’s matriarch, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, about whom I have written the first complete biography, based on her papers released at the JFK Presidential Library in 2006.
Rose Kennedy is often overshadowed in history by her imperious husband, business mogul Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., even though she outlived him by a quarter-century. A former Hollywood tycoon, he is frequently credited with producing the Kennedy saga. Of course, Rose’s role was circumscribed by the patriarchal family, society, and religion that shaped her. Yet, if Joe was the executive producer of the family, his wife played to perfection the less glamorous roles—stage manager, script-writer, wardrobe mistress, and make-up artist—in order to present to the world a compelling portrait of the nine children she brought into this world. When her husband’s diplomatic indiscretions at the dawn of World War II rendered him politically toxic on the campaign trail, she became the family spokesperson, while Joe provided money and strategy behind the scenes. As Edward Kennedy (UVA Law ’59), her youngest child, eulogized his parents, “Dad was the spark. Mother was the light of our lives. He was our greatest fan. She was our greatest teacher.”
Rose Kennedy described her life as one of “agony and ecstasy.” The daughter of a storied Boston mayor and wife of the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, she raised three sons who became U.S. senators, a U.S. congressman, president of the United States, a U.S attorney general, and two decorated World War II combat heroes. One of her daughters founded the Special Olympics, and another became U.S. ambassador to Ireland; both received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. No wonder United Nation’s ambassador Adlai Stevenson introduced Rose at the 1962 Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation’s International Awards dinner as “the head of the most successful employment agency in America,” prompting a standing ovation from President John F. Kennedy. (See photo below by Abbie Rowe, White House, JFK Library, Boston; public domain)
Yet Rose Kennedy outlived four of her children, all victims of violent death, and had to endure the mental incapacitation of her eldest daughter. When she died at age 104 in 1995, she was accurately recognized as the matriarch of one of the most potent dynasties in American political history. LIFE magazine labeled her “part nun, part enchantress, part ward boss, and all mother.” CNN could not have chosen a more consequential family to profile in their series.