I thoroughly enjoyed this series on the American presidents. I am a fan of historical programming on television, both on cable channels and on the PBS network, from which this collection comes. Perhaps the most unique feature of this series is that instead of going through the list of presidents in chronological order, it groups them into broad categories. These categories include:
* Family Ties * Happenstance * Independent Cast of Mind * Professional Politicians * The American Way * The World Stage * Heroic Posture * Compromise Choices * Expanding Power * The Balance of Power
These ten categories have four presidents each, save one, Happenstance, which has an extra member of the category, to add up to 41 presidents. (If you recall that the current President Bush is number 43, you would be correct; Grover Cleveland gets two numbers in the listing, his terms of office being non-consecutive). Deriving from the book on the presidents by the Kunhardts, the categories are not definitive, but rather generally descriptive of some of the key aspects of the individual presidents.
For example, the presidents featured under the category 'Heroic Posture' in episode seven were all military leaders. These included Washington, Harrison, Grant, and Eisenhower. While one might question the inclusion of Harrison in this, in fact he was elected in part based on his heroic image, even if he didn't last long. His death early in office provided America with its first 'Happenstance' leader, John Tyler, who set the precedent for vice presidents assuming full authority when a president dies or otherwise leaves office (it is hard for us in the modern day, when such a transfer seems automatic, to image there was a time when it was unclear if the vice president should become president at this event).
The overall narration is given by Hugh Sidey, the recently deceased White House correspondent who served with presidents throughout the last half of the twentieth century. Adding 'colour commentary' is Richard Neustadt, himself a veteran of White House work. No presentation of political figures can ever be apolitical, particularly when issues reach into the current day, but between Sidey, Neustadt and the Kunhardts, a reasonably balanced picture is portrayed of most of the presidents.
There is a necessary limitation to the depth that can be devoted to each figure in this kind of format. Given the balance of presentation, it also seems somewhat strange for William Henry Harrison and Millard Filmore to get equal time with figures such as Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - after all, FDR's term of office was almost 150 times as long as W.H. Harrison's, yet they both have almost equal time in the documentary. However, the presentation does more than simply present the politics or the personalities of the presidents highlighted, but also give a sense and flavour of the time in the country in which each served.
For later presidents, their own voices and words are heard in part describing their actions and presidencies - some sat for interviews as part of this series (both Carter and Bush gave extensive interviews). For earlier presidents, other notable figures lent their voices to the task - William F. Buckley as Teddy Roosevelt, Walter Cronkite as George Washington, Billy Graham as James Garfield (a clever casting, given that Garfield was the only minister ever to become president), and so forth.
This series will be useful to teachers, students at the high school and undergraduate level, and those who simply want more information. This is more of a survey with some interesting trivia bits than a comprehensive treatment, but in honesty, how many people have time to watch a multi-night documentary on each president? One thing that viewers might draw from this is an interest to do further reading and further viewing on selected topics raised.
The use of art work, natural settings, manuscripts, and archival footage makes for a very interesting presentation. This is a series I watch on a frequent basis to reacquaint myself with aspects of American history.
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