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JFK and politics today

(Credit: Politirazzi)

By Emily

I spoke with acclaimed Robert Drew, cinema-verite pioneer and director and producer of “A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy,” on the likenesses between Kennedy and Sen. Barack Obama and Drew’s other thoughts on the presidency.

“President to Remember,” narrated by Alec Baldwin, is being screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

How is “President to Remember” different than your first four groundbreaking documentaries about Kennedy?

It’s more than a compilation; it’s an interlacing, reediting and rethinking of the four in terms of today. We’ve had [President Bush] now for two terms who’s sort of the reverse of Kennedy and as I look back through the original films, I was overwhelmed by the tremendous contrast between them.

Do you see a Kennedy resemblance among the current presidential candidates?

Now I’m not trying to endorse anybody, and I’m not trying to pick anyone, but as you know, Obama’s been wearing a Kennedy mantle. They’re both literate and intelligent, and they’re both good speakers.

It’s such a shock to see a presidential candidate, in contrast to our last one, stand up and be smart. I’m still trying not to condemn anybody, but it’s a real shock to hear words put together nicely.

(continued) How did you choose Kennedy as the topic of your films?

I had been trying to develop equipment to shoot candidly, so I looked at the country and out popped a story. He was a young senator running against tremendous odds. The whole party was against him. Previous presidents were against him. His Catholicism. His wealth. All that. And I thought, what a wonderful story. I didn’t try to guess whether he would win or lose.

How did you get him to agree to such a seemingly intrusive project?

I ended up in his living room in Georgetown. He came in in his bathrobe, coughing. He had a terrible cold, and he said, “What do you want?” I said, I’m trying to develop a new form of reporting, a new form of history. It doesn’t interview, doesn’t interfere. We won’t light, won’t direct. And that interested him a little bit. He asked “What good would it do me?” I said, “It would be a piece of history. For better or for worse, it would be a part of posterity.”

What sort of relationship did you develop with Kennedy?

I think we developed an understanding; it wasn’t a friendship exactly. As time went on, it become that I could pick up the phone and get a message through to the president.

And among the most memorable moments of filming Kennedy?

We were looking for a crisis [for the documentary, “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment]. We couldn’t do an international crisis, but he said, “Come down to the White House and shoot some tests, and see if I can forget the cameras the way I did on the campaign trail.” On the second day of shooting, he forgot us so completely, Cuba came up and one of his admirals had to remind him that we were filming.

Would you like viewers to leave “President to Remember” comparing Kennedy to the current political climate?

That’s the whole idea. I put a year into the film with thoughts and considerations and questions raised by seeing how Kennedy lived.

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