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DVD Review: The Presidents – A History Channel Documentary Series

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I'm a major geek for politics. I could tell you considerably more about which candidate came in third in what primary of 1996 than any sensible person would want to know. But I've come up with a considerably more interesting and worthwhile point of attention recently. I spent a good part of the couple of days around the 2008 Iowa caucuses watching a really excellent History Channel documentary series on The Presidents.

This was originally eight one hour programs (about 45 minutes per without commercials) that first aired in 2005, available on three DVDs. That figures out averaging about eight minutes times each president. Now of course there's only so much ground you can cover in that time, but they get surprisingly much into that frame.

President Andrew JohnsonLooking at it, these entries mostly seem like just enough to give an attentive viewer some sense of the interesting particulars of how each president got there, what they were like personally and in their management style, how they were regarded in their time (often very different than how they are regarded now), and their most significant accomplishments and failures. One of the simple and effective standards for each of the 43 presidents is basic baseball card type graphic, an image, signature and dates on front, and a basic personal checklist on the back.
President Andrew Johnson checklistThat's a fairly effective set of simple visual aids that get combined with a lot of fairly densely layered but generally easily grasped details, starting with a good straightforward narration. But then the benefits of a properly budgeted History Channel show adds a lot in visuals.

Of course, there's lots of video and such of the modern presidents, but they got a lot of good out of all kinds of vintage paintings of both action scenes and portraits of the pre-photographic presidents and modern shots of historical places, and the talking head historians have maybe just the right amount of face time, giving 30 seconds or a minute to effectively stop the cutting back and forth of images to make important analytical points.

picture of President Chester A ArthurOne thing that I could have done without in all this are the little bits of re-creations. They don't have sound and get maybe just a few seconds apiece. A lot of them are so quick as to be almost subliminal, gone before you would become conscious of the artifice — which is good. There was a somewhat distracting and obnoxious bit with an actor playing as Chester Arthur as a window shopping dandy.

One really useful visual point that they actually could have done more with is the use of vintage editorial cartoons, such as this depiction of Arthur as a "great machine trick." This gives a pretty good idea of the natural viewpoint that many contemporaries would have had.

vintage editorial cartoon of President Chester A ArthurChet Arthur had a particularly interesting entry for being one of the less regarded presidents. In his background, he came up as tax collector of the New York Port Authority (a really important post in the pre-income tax era) with sponsorship of the particularly egregious New York patronage machine. President Hayes had made a big point of removing him from the job in a highly public attempt at civil service reform. The really interesting thing about that is that when he ascended to the presidency after Garfield's assassination, Arthur became the one who actually passed major civil service reform, even at the expense of his long friendship with Senator Conkling. His own party wouldn't nominate him to run for his own term after that, but note also that he set about a very desperately needed upgrade of the navy — which apparently had less than a half dozen ships that were really top flight. Seems like actually pretty fair accomplishment for a less than one term president.

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  • Geoff Elliott

    I’ve been fascinated by the American presidents, all of them, since I was a small child. I’ve read extensively about them as well.

    I found this History Channel series to be fairly interesting, but of course it’s impossible to go in depth about any of the men who held the highest office in the land.

    I would disagree with your opinion that “do nothing” presidents are better than “big doer” presidents. It was “do nothing” presidents like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan (the 13th, 14th, and 15th presidents) who allowed the U.S. to spiral into the Civil War. It was other “do nothings” like Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover who allowed the economy to plunge into the Great Depression.

    Of course, activist presidents can also get us into trouble, such as the current one who led us into an unnecessary war with Iraq.

    Finally, William Howard Taft wasn’t exactly a “do nothing” president. For all the credit that Theodore Roosevelt gets for “busting” the trusts and monopolies of the times, William H. Taft’s administration actually took more action against the trusts than did that of Roosevelt’s.

    This series was a good starting point for people who would like to know more about our presidents. Thanks for sharing.

  • Al Barger

    Geoff- My point about activist vs pacifistic presidents is general, so it won’t apply 100% in all places and times. Also, all presidents do something – and some things they’re supposed to do. Trust busting was significant, but pretty mild as “activism” compared to FDR’s breathtaking socialist usurpations.

    And doing little or nothing would have been far better when he came to power. It was his huge, arbitrary and unpredictable interventions that drug out a bad market correction into a decade+ depression. Thomas Sowell notes that Black Friday in 1987 was proportionally as bad as the 1929 crash – yet Reagan resisted strong political pressures and did nothing. Arguably as a result of benign neglect, that bad minute in the market is now barely remembered.