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THE PRESIDENTS

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

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  - Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States

Film ***1/2

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 can be.

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. 

Video ****

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. 

Audio ***

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. 

Features ***

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. 

Summary

Being president is tough, and this special shows how presidents are all too human yet can accomplish so much in only a few years.  This special presents a tremendous amount of relatively unbiased information in a format that is easy to enjoy, as we have come to expect from the History Channel.

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