In the 1960s several factors came together to change the way American politics was both played and perceived, and the journalist Theodore H. White played an important role in the second part of that equation. With his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Making of the President 1960, he brought the processes of presidential electoral politics out into the open, and he did this fortuitously at the same moment that John F. Kennedy came to power. It was at this moment that the conservative stability of the Eisenhower '50s began to give way to powerful social and cultural upheavals which, throughout the next decade, would transform the nation in ways which are still echoing today.
But White's book was just a part of the evolution in the way politics was perceived. At the same time, television was becoming more pervasive and powerful as the chief purveyor of information and opinion. The growing omnipresence of television meant that there was now a wealth of material – picture and sound – covering the processes White wrote about in his book, so it was almost inevitable that someone like the prolific producer of documentaries David L. Wolper would seize the moment and bring White and that archival material together to produce what became the first of a series of feature-length television documentaries called The Making of the President.
Athena have just released a fascinating three-disk set containing the programs covering the elections of 1960, 1964 and 1968, providing us with a remarkable portrait of both the time and the ways in which that time was presented to itself in the media.
While the focus of each documentary is one particular election, watching the three together gives us something larger, a glimpse of the tectonic social shifts the country underwent as the war in Vietnam escalated and the counter-culture developed in response. In addition, they illustrate the remarkable achievement of the space program which was given impetus by Kennedy's famous speech committing the nation to putting a man on the moon by decade's end, a goal ironically achieved after the Democratic Party collapsed from the strain of the war and Richard Nixon had taken the White House.
Against this background of social and technological change, each of the three documentaries details the struggles within the two parties in nominating their candidates for president, and between those nominees once the election gets underway. In retrospect, The Making of the President 1960 seems refreshing in light of the abrasive media-driven politics we see today. Kennedy and Nixon exchange insults which seem more tinged with humor than malice, and within both parties there were conflicts between right and left factions.