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The Duel

June 2024
1min read

Kennedy vs Wallace

produced by Robert Drew, American Experience/Direct Cinema, 60 mins., $29.95. CODE: DCV-4

Robert Drew’s look inside the White House must have had a remarkable effect when it first aired, in 1963, when viewers were used to generations of newsreels. It didn’t show the Chief Executive signing legislation to martial music; Drew followed the President and the Attorney General at the height of the government’s integration battle with Alabama’s governor George Wallace, who had pledged to “stand in the schoolhouse door” of the state university.

The film is best remembered for its record of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s high-pressure phone negotiations, conferring with both Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Wallace while his young children race around his Washington office. What was often forgotten before the film was rebroadcast last year is how balanced it is as history: after memorable scenes of the Attorney General, Wallace comes on and looks just as youthful and dedicated. He sweeps down the staircase of the governor’s mansion and lifts up his young daughter for a kiss; then he casually explains in the car why decency demands that he make his stand for States’ Rights by keeping two black students from entering school. In his prime Wallace could be oddly winning too, as Drew unintrusively shows.

New commentary by Katzenbach and one of the university students has been added; it seems superfluous. Even in this day of live television legal showdowns the Kennedy-Wallace face-off remains compelling on its own.

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