- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

“No man who ever held the office of president would ever congratulate a friend on obtaining it,” John Adams once told his son, John Quincy Adams. Both served only one term.

Reminders of the singular honor and strain of the presidency abound in the History Channel’s new eight-hour documentary “The Presidents,” which airs in four parts Jan. 18- 21 at 8 p.m. Narrated by acclaimed actor Edward Herrmann — a memorable Franklin D. Roosevelt in two made-for-TV miniseries in the 1970s — “The Presidents” offers a smooth narrative of the past 216 years, a diverting recap of the highlights and low points of the 43 administrations that have governed America’s executive branch.

Based on the book “To the Best of My Ability,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson, “The Presidents” is decidedly conventional in its history. Still, this is not your father’s — or Ken Burns’ — documentary.

The overwhelming sweep of history between the inaugurations of Georges Washington and Bush would ordinarily demand a fast clip; but “The Presidents” takes things a step beyond, with MTV-friendly split-second editing, zippy graphics, distorted psychedelic imagery and continuous musical accompaniment, some of it suited less to thoughtful reflection on 18th-century statesmanship than to an all-night rave below TriBeCa.

Each of the chief executives is introduced through computer-generated baseball cards whose reverse sides, revealed after the obligatory swooshing, proffer trivial bullet points about their personalities in jarringly modern psychobabble. Thus, John Adams was hindered by “poor people skills.” James Monroe was a “hands-off manager.” Chester A. Arthur, depicted by a mutton-chopped actor smilingly double-fisting two bottles of liquor, is described as a “high-living New York party animal.” And Millard Fillmore, who took office after illness felled Zachary Taylor, is derided as “an accidental president” and “the Gerald Ford of his day” beneath (scarily old-looking) footage of Mr. Ford pratfalling down the steps of Air Force One.

And while it might be naive to expect a documentary about politicians to be devoid of politics, the scarcely hidden political sympathies of the producers are also in accord with the MTV Weltanschauung. Early on, for example, we are informed that Washington’s frequent rides atop his white horse, Nelson, formed “a vital part of [his] public-relations package — his version of a tailhook landing.” Here the producers juxtaposed an illustration of Washington on his horse with the unforgettable footage of President Bush in his flight suit celebrating the end of “major hostilities” in Iraq.

The portion about John Quincy Adams states as fact, over more footage of the younger Mr. Bush, that he, like our current president, sought “to exorcise his father’s political demons.” Later still, a historian asserts, without challenge, the “important parallels” between the presidencies of William McKinley and Bush 43: “There certainly was a sense in McKinley’s day that corporate America had taken control of political America, and many people feel that way today.”

Columbia University’s Eric Foner bemoans the “presidents nowadays” who claim to “know what God believes.” Jimmy Carter, the lone president heard from in latter-day interviews, enjoys the unique luxury of defending his record in office. On the incumbent, we have historian and former CNN executive Walter Isaacson criticizing, again without challenge, Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as one made “far too early” and on the basis of “very tenuous” data.

Surely, there is no more telling Rorschach test than the figure of Richard Nixon — and here, the filmmakers simplify with little regard for fairness or historical accuracy. Consider the first three sentences on the 37th president:

• “Richard Nixon had spent the better part of his lengthy political career scheming and campaigning for the presidency.” Scheming? Was he unique in this?

• “In 1968, he ran on a platform that included what he called a ‘secret plan’ to end the war in Vietnam.” Mr. Nixon never said he had a secret plan.

• “In truth, Nixon wanted to keep the war going.” Nixon made repeated efforts to negotiate an end to the war, privately and publicly, as chronicled contemporaneously in “The Haldeman Diaries.”

Finally, in brushing past Mr. Nixon’s unique fall from power, the producers throw around terms such as “cover-up” and “obstruction of justice” but never bother to explain, even cursorily, the Watergate scandal: no break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, no televised hearings — just “I am not a crook,” more of Mr. Isaacson and a sprinkling of David Gergen.

Where “The Presidents” excels is in its visual resourcefulness. In the early portraits, deprived of film footage of their subjects, the producers array some marvelous paintings and political cartoons, brilliant satires that remind us how long our political tradition has been a bare-knuckle affair. Later, viewers are treated to rare images of Franklin D. Roosevelt battling polio in leg braces, as well as color films of FDR with Winston Churchill, and Lyndon B. Johnson personally briefing Mr. Nixon in 1969.

The series also offers a wealth of fascinating presidential trivia: Who was the last president born under British rule? William Henry Harrison. The last Civil War veteran? McKinley. The first to use a phone in the White House? Rutherford B. Hayes. And the fattest? William Howard Taft.

Occasionally, the series’ accomplished, if largely homogeneous, roster of historians (the only black historian disappears after the second hour) manages to transcend the attention-deficit-disorder approach and sneak in a provocative remark, even an unconventional thought.

Recalling the terminal effect the Great Depression had on Herbert Hoover’s career, for example, historian John Milton Cooper says: “Imagine if somebody like FDR had been in office in 1929 — you know, some type of real public charmer, you know, glad-hander. By 1932 [the public] would have been clamoring for somebody different. Somebody who’s not a politician. Somebody who understands the economy. Somebody like — Herbert Hoover.”

In the end, though, this series offends both in omission and commission; it is at once uncharitable in what it leaves out and flawed in what it presents, occasionally ungrammatical as well as ahistorical.

Despite these flaws — and surely a project of this kind will always leave partisans of one president or another dissatisfied — “The Presidents” may still serve some limited purpose. If the History Channel’s slick, soundtrack-driven presentation captures the attention, however fleetingly, of students today, it might whet their appetites for history, to be satisfied only by a search for the real thing.

James Rosen is a Fox News White House correspondent and author of the forthcoming book “The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon and Watergate” (Doubleday).

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide