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CNN takes a historical look at the Kennedy family

NEW YORK  — In the Trump era, the story of the Kennedys has never seemed so distant or, one family member believes, more urgent to tell.

“It’s important for people to know that there is another way,” said former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. “What people understand to be the paradigm of today, that doesn’t have to be the narrative for our country.”

He’s also interviewed in CNN’s new six-part series, “American Dynasties: The Kennedys,” that debuts at 9 p.m. EDT on Sunday. Coupled with the premiere of a new series about popes, it’s an example of CNN’s new approach to historical programming now that it is running out of decades to celebrate.

The Kennedys are one of the most documented families in modern American life, and CNN hopes that its work in the series offers new looks at a familiar story. Sunday’s first episode focuses on family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, who wanted to be president himself until his poor performance as U.S. ambassador to Britain during World War II ended that ambition. He transferred that drive to his large family, which culminated in the election of second son John F. Kennedy as president in 1960.

Through the episodes, the series continues through John and brother Bobby’s assassinations, Ted Kennedy’s long career in the Senate and the varied paths of new Kennedy generations, including the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr.

While it discusses the family’s achievements, the project is not a hagiography. The series discusses JFK’s womanizing, the disastrous decision to lobotomize the young Rosemary Kennedy and, in a later episode, Ted Kennedy’s involvement in a deadly car accident in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts.

Producers sought archival material that went beyond familiar clips, said Amy Entelis, who oversees CNN’s film and original series units. For example, the first episode shows Joseph Kennedy’s family greeted by photographers upon his arrival in Britain, where young Bobby and Ted gave media interviews.

“That was footage that was really new to me — to see them as children and already, as children, on the public stage,” she said. “We really made an effort to dig deeply and find not only new angles to the story, but new ways to illustrate the story.”

Experience has taught CNN executives that its viewers respond to historical programming. The breezy series celebrating particular decades is the most prominent example, but since CNN is airing one on the 2000s this summer, they’ve hit a dead end, at least for two more years.

“The Kennedys,” like last month’s series on Patricia Hearst, enables the network to examine certain time periods through specific lenses. The nostalgia appeal is obvious, but CNN executives were surprised five years ago at how well a documentary on JFK’s assassination did among young viewers who were anxious to get more details about an event many had heard about but hadn’t looked at closely, Entelis said.

“We’re living in an unusual age and people are very engaged in history because of the politics of today,” she said.

Current commentary by Kennedys like Patrick is interspersed throughout the film. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is interviewed, and it’s enlightening to hear a young “Kick” Kennedy talk about the bold life and romantic choices of her great aunt and namesake Kathleen Kennedy. She and older brother Joseph Jr. both died in plane crashes.

CNN had mixed results when asking other Kennedy members to participate, Entelis said. JFK’s daughter Caroline is not included, nor is noted filmmaker Rory Kennedy.

Patrick Kennedy, who represented a Rhode Island district in Congress from 1995 to 2011 and is now an advocate on mental health and addiction issues, said he wanted people to hear the message of public service that his father and his family espoused. “The message they had for their generation really transcended their time,” he said.

Kennedy, who has written about his own addiction issues, decided not to seek re-election six months after his father died. He doesn’t seem to miss Congress: “I was there at a time when you could actually get things done,” he said.

He wouldn’t answer directly when asked whether his family members would want to see another President Kennedy.

“I know that they’d like to see the beloved community — John Lewis was a part of it, Dr. King, Cesar Chavez, Robert Kennedy, Eunice Shriver — I think that’s what we all want to be part of,” he said. “That’s what’s going to fill us up, to feel that we’re all connected again, that we’re not fragmented and the country is so divided.”

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