TV drama by the numbers -- a vacuous history of the Kennedys

Robert Francis Kennedy played a principal role in one of this country's most turbulent eras. He has been variously described as ``a little twerp,'' ``a ruthless'' so-and-so, and a visionary man of the people. The men and women with whom he came into contact were among the more fascinating of our age. For all these reasons, and many more, the book ``Robert Kennedy and His Times,'' by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a close Kennedy confidant and an elegant historian, makes compelling reading.

Whatever a reader's feelings about the man and Mr. Schlesinger's admittedly one-sided interpretation of his life, one takes much instruction from its pages, crammed as they are with historical detail and close personal observations. So, when CBS offers a seven-hour miniseries -- Robert Kennedy and His Times (CBS, Sunday, Jan. 27, 8-11 p.m.; Monday, 8-10 p.m.; Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.) -- based on the book, it naturally raises one's interest. If the producers, writers, and directors managed to soak up even a fraction of the massive documentation in the book's 1,000 or so pages, they'd easily fill a miniseries of this length.

Well, this version doesn't get that far. Not by half.

What we have here is a classic case of network television casting, directing, and writing by the numbers. It provides a blueprint for the intricate thought process that runs through CBS's giant ``Blackrock'' headquarters and eventually produces a little windup mouse.

I remember sitting in the executive suite of that building several years ago, after NBC's dramatically successful miniseries ``King'' -- which just ran again on independent television stations in conjunction with Martin Luther King's birthday -- had registered a disappointing pulse in the ratings. I was talking to a high-ranking CBS official. Why, I asked, would a program that played to an unimaginably vast audience for any book, or even most movies, be considered a disaster? Was it that important to come in first place in the ratings?

``King'' was a failure, he answered, because networks were like vast movie houses, and, if they didn't fill most of their seats, they would be out of business.

I suppose that is the kind of thinking that gave us ``Robert Kennedy and His Times.'' So, let's look for a moment at what it led to.

The role of John F. Kennedy in this miniseries is played by Cliff De Young, who had given us an abrasively believable Bobby Kennedy in ``King.'' Here, he is reduced to a preppy, boyish fellow who says ``Bobby, I really want a disarmament agreement with Russia,'' as though he were dreaming of winning the big game at Harvard.

His brother, Robert, on the other hand, is presented by Brad Davis as a puppy dog who eventually finds he has the heart of a lion.

And so it goes. J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph R. McCarthy, Joseph P. Kennedy -- all figures of enormous personal force and some sinister fascination -- are trivialized here.

How, you might ask, with all that money and talent at their disposal, did the network manage to produce a paper-doll version of such life-filled, heady history?

My own conclusion is that they did it on purpose.

I think that CBS and the show's producers set out to produce a Boston Irish version of ``The Waltons,'' with Capitol Hill as Walton Mountain; and I think they did it for the same reason they make most of their programming decisions: because they believe bland, fatuous television brings high numbers.

Moreover, the cynicism implicit in such a decision seems to me particularly reprehensible in connection with this subject matter.

They have turned a distinguished piece of writing, about a subject of great sensitivity for many Americans, into cream-cheese spread between commercial breaks.

Take, for example, a scene in which Robert and John Kennedy sit watching Martin Luther King's famous ``I have a dream'' speech on television. It cannot escape the viewer's attention that these three men would be dead at the hands of assassins within a short space of time.

Somehow it cheapens the remembrance of these people to see live footage of Dr. King intercut with the hokey TV ``reality'' that this show offers.

Similarly, the constant references, in the second half of the miniseries, to the slain John Kennedy take on a vacuous melodrama, which does a disservice to the real man who was shot in Dallas's Dealey Plaza.

It is only fair to point out that, also in the second half, the miniseries begins to take on some real, gritty interest, as it gets into the struggle between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson; and the network is to be credited for avoiding the temptation to show footage of the assassinations. But it's too little, too late to make up for the vacuous treatment of the subject during the previous hours.

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