TV explores JFK's legacy

This week marks 40 years since president's assassination

— In the week leading up to Nov. 22, more than a dozen JFK specials invite viewers to encounter him from every vantage point on the 40th anniversary of his death.

You can step back and survey his role in a powerful political dynasty on "The Kennedys" (encoring on PBS, 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday).

You can re-experience the tragedy by focusing on the journalists who originally reported it. Through their memories as well as with painstakingly compiled footage, CNN's "President Kennedy Has Been Shot" (7 p.m. today) and PBS' "JFK: Breaking the News" ( 7 p.m. Wednesday and 9 p.m. Thursday) track Kennedy's death, then, two days later, the killing of his collared murder suspect on live television.

In the process, both programs document media history being made.

"With no preparation whatsoever," says "Breaking the News" narrator Jane Pauley, those long-ago newscasters mobilized "the most massive coverage of any event since the invention of television." They gathered the nation in a video vigil. And created a model for cable news two decades later.

Between this pair of films, perhaps "Breaking the News" has the edge in conveying how journalists responded when a one-day story took on timeless gravity.

Particularly telling are extended excerpts that show Jay Watson, program director at WFAA-TV in Dallas, as he is pressed into unaccustomed on-air duty (all the station's reporters happened to be out in the field).

At one point, Watson manages to chain-smoke, monitor a telephone for updates, and interview Abraham Zapruder, who by chance had just made the most famous home movie of all time. "I got out about a half-hour earlier to get a good spot to shoot some pictures," he explains.

His 26-second, 8mm film -- the only known visual record of the full ambush -- figures heavily in a trio of documentaries that re-examine whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or as part of a conspiracy. And, befitting a debate that will likely never be resolved, the films arrive at differing conclusions.

Fox News Channel's "JFK: Case Not Closed" (8 p.m. today) supports a conspiracy hypothesis. It disputes the "single bullet theory" and interprets an audio transmission from a Dallas police motorcycle as containing sounds from four gun shots, not three -- which would prove the existence of a second assailant in Dealey Plaza.

But Court TV's "JFK: Investigation Reopened" (8 p.m. Wednesday) draws on high-tech analysis that accounts for how that single "magic" bullet might have plausibly traveled through Kennedy, then struck Texas Gov. John Connally in the front seat of their limousine.

This fascinating hour also means to debunk the police tape with techniques that suggest the "gun shots" are random noise -- and the recording was made a full minute after the shooting was over.

"Kennedy's legacy is defined in part by the manner of his passing," observes the splendid three-hour "JFK: A Presidency Revealed" (7 p.m. today, History Channel).

But before his fateful trip to Dallas, Kennedy faced the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union no fewer than three times. (In the film, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalls an October night during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when he wondered if he -- and by extension the human race -- would be alive a week later.)

And three times Kennedy would confront the prospect of sending federal troops to occupy Southern states to protect the civil rights of black Americans.

During his brief presidency, Kennedy set America on a course for the moon. He altered fashion, refusing to wear a hat and wearing his hair longish by the standards of that pre-Beatles era. With his wife, Jackie, he was the arbiter of excellence, cool and glamour that helped "create an illusion that later became known as Camelot."

But in the meantime, he struggled with a remarkable variety of ailments and medications while maintaining a guise of health and vitality. He had a family the world admired, yet he lived a secret life of extramarital conquests.

Veteran reporter Hugh Sidey, who covered Kennedy for Time-Life publications, believes there was "a very good chance" that news of his indiscretions "would have broken wide open sometime in his second term, if not before, and he might have been forced out of office."

But, 40 years after Dallas, that's just one of countless "what ifs."

"He's frozen in our memories at the age of 46," says Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek. "So handsome, so articulate, so witty, so charming, so charismatic. He was a man of exceptional promise."

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