Review by Mark Wiechman
Narrated by Edward Hermann
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Color and B & W, Full screen
Studio: History Television Network Productions
Features: See Review
Length: Three Discs, six hours plus extras
Release date: April 26, 2005
Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
A common saying about early 20th Century presidents goes
like this: Herbert Hoover showed
that a president did not need to go to college; FDR proved that a president
could serve more than two terms; Harry Truman proved that anyone could be
president; and Dwight D. Eisenhower proved that we did not need a president!
Such a brief assessment of four relatively good men, each with
accomplishments and failures in their administrations, shows how tough the job
Is any job more difficult that the American Presidency?
At least the Pope does not have to run for re-election!
Comparing them through the lens of history is interesting because many
popular presidents have lost their luster over time while others seem to have
been right even when the American people (and the world) thought otherwise.
It is also difficult to measure their greatness unless the context of
their time is considered.
In the continuing wave of interest in the founding fathers,
the history channel continues to release thought provoking specials which
include minimal editorializing and maximum fact sharing through the medium of
television. Yet they still manage
to present more than one view of events or theories as to why history has
unfolded the way it has.
I am always fascinated by what drives men and women to be politicians and how their strengths and weaknesses contribute to their successes and failures. Few politicians possessed the legislative genius of Lyndon Johnson, yet he chose not to even run again four years after a record-breaking victory. Few historians would argue that Thomas Jefferson was a pivotal figure in American history, yet the general consensus is also that he was not necessarily an effective president and Jefferson himself did not even want that mentioned on his tombstone. Teddy Roosevelt was only president by accident, yet was probably our first modern president and led America through tough political times, then he wrecked his party's future by running as a third party candidate. Bill Clinton brought the greatest unity the Democrats had known in decades, and yet his personal character flaws are mostly what history will remember him for. History has been kind to some presidents who were unpopular in their time and vice versa.
Discussing American presidents is difficult enough when an
author has unlimited space to write about every aspect of their lives, but
providing highlights of each president and the pros and cons of each man
personally and politically is even more difficult. That is why I am very impressed with this three-disc set,
which manages to provide relatively unbiased portrayals of our presidents from
George Washington to George W. Bush. Each
segment discusses some of the reasons for their election and the positive and
negative aspects of their legacies. For
instance, Nixon is highly praised for foreign relations but obviously his
resignation has overshadowed those achievements.
Another example is the segment on Harding.
It points out that the many scandals his administration is known for
actually came to light after his death in office and may not have even been
related to his actions personally. Truman
was possibly the most unpopular president ever in his lifetime, at least
according to polls, but he was elected in his own right and had to make many of
the most difficult decisions any president has had to face, including the atomic
bomb and the Korean War. He was
blamed for losing China to communism and appointed many loyal friends who gave
into corruption and tarnished the reputation of an otherwise good man.
Eisenhower only seemed oblivious when in fact he was involved in every
major decision of his presidency, including the appointment of Earl Warren as
chief justice. Warren of course led
the court to the unanimous Brown v. Board
of Education decision which doomed segregation, but Ike himself was not in
favor of this at the time. Thus do
presidents often create tidal waves of change despite themselves.
While the public often criticizes presidents as being
stupid or even evil, it takes tremendous charisma, hard work, and intelligence
to even get through the day in the White House.
Many events occur over which the American president has little control,
from Castro's rise, to Kennedy's assassination, to the Iranian hostages, to
September 11, 2001, and how our leaders react to them define their place in
history. This special does note
that some presidents were probably better than others, but is fairly even.
For instance, JFK receives a very favorable presentation but notes that
he did have much to learn as he went along and that he only became involved in
civil rights after violence broke out across the south and that he did in fact
approve the assassination of the president of south Viet Nam, which makes
Watergate's illegality and Clinton's dalliances seem trifling.
It also points out that JFK's martyrdom made his legacy seem much more
significant than it actually was.
The flow is very smooth, particularly since modern
interview footage of historians is interspersed with ancient television footage.
Artifacts are few and far between and there is much color footage which I
have never seen before.
Only Dolby stereo, with digital clarity some of the good
balance we expect from History Channel productions, but occasionally the
historians mumble. Simple
engineering could have fixed this, and it forces the listener to turn the volume
up over and over before a scene change when your speakers are in mortal danger.
All the Presidents' Wives is an illuminating overview of how differently the first ladies were from their husbands and each other. A timeline of U.S. Presidents is also included.