Kennedy profiled as never before

The president could turn on the secret taping system by means of a switch hidden in a pen socket on his desk in the Oval Office.

No, it's a not a fictional political thriller, it's exactly the setup that President John F. Kennedy had installed during his administration, with further switches in a bookend, as well as in a coffee table. The switches set off a recording device linked to microphones hidden in desk knee wells, as well as former light fixture spaces.

Of the more than 500 hours of taping done by Kennedy from early 1961 until his death on Nov. 22, 1963, many hours have only been declassified in recent years, and the wealth of information is being used in the fascinating two-part documentary "JFK" on the PBS series American Experience.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, the new documentary is notable in that it focuses largely on the media-hungry Kennedy family and administration, as well as Kennedy's foreign policy initiatives, while avoiding his death in Dallas, Texas, and the more salient episodes of his love life (you won't find Marilyn Monroe here).

A concerted effort is made to explain the tension between the United States and the U.S.S.R.


Most spellbinding of all are the segments dealing with the 1960 presidential election, showing Kennedy leading the first-ever "modern campaign," using television, airplanes for his staff, and the press corps as never before.

American Experience, which has a shelf full of deserved awards, should be praised for offering as complete a portrait of Kennedy as possible, using current scholarship and never-before-seen footage, especially around the time most programs will be reconstructing the tragic events in Dallas in 1963.

"JFK" succeeds at showing an honest portrait of a man often lost in his own mythology. Savvy, ambitious and, at times sympathetic, it's a must-see documentary.

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