Subject: I have found a DVD that I think you would enjoy
|The American President |
PBS Box Set
Actors: Walter Cronkite, Morley Safer, Andrew Young, Dale Bumpers, Robert MacNeil
Genres: Television, Documentary
THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, first series to profile all 41 U.S. chief executives, uses exclusive interviews with Presidents Clinton, Bush, Ford, and Carter and the voices of well-known figures for leaders before sound recordin... more »
An Ambitious Effort Suffers from an Awkward Format
Brett Leggett | 05/12/2000
(2 out of 5 stars)
"Based on the book by Peter and Philip Kunhardt, The American President is an ambitious five-part series of mini-documentaries about the 41 men who served as President. What distinguishes this documentary from others is its grouping of Presidents into broad themes based on shared administrative styles, family backgrounds, and other shared features. For example, FDR and Kennedy are grouped according to the influence and power of their families in shaping their careers. Jefferson, Coolidge, and Reagan share time according to their governing philosophies. Spanning about 10 hours, each biography lasts roughly 15 minutes. While a new and interesting idea, treating each President by theme rather than in chronological order presented some nagging problems for me. Inevitably, some Presidents could fit into more than one category (do you put Coolidge into the Vice-Presidential succession category or treat him by his governing philosophy?). This in itself isn't the problem. The danger in shuffling Presidents around and fixing them under themes is the potential for over-emphasizing the role of these influences in shaping their administrations. For instance, in the "family" category, much is made of the power and influence of Kennedy's family in his decision-making, too much perhaps. If you knew nothing about him, you might think that JFK considered his father's wishes whenever making a decision. Even if this was somehow true, how would anyone be qualified to make that assertion? If I were to do a documentary of myself (God forbid) and spend fifteen minutes talking about my entire life in the context of my relationship with my turtle, I think you'd walk away with a pretty distorted and lopsided view of who I am (among other things). Also at issue was the length of each segment. Obviously, the nature of the project forced the producers to spend just minutes covering each person. This means that corners had to be cut and facts omitted. Unfortunately, when this isn't done with precision, it can create misconceptions. If I know little about FDR's background and the program tells me that he had an "affair" which damaged his marriage (without further explanation), I might be tempted to group him with the indiscretions of those like President Clinton. In fact, the exact nature of his relationship with Lucy Mercer and his personal secretary has never been well-defined. In the past, historians have characterized FDR's relationship with these individuals more along the lines of close "companions." Some even question the existence of a physical relationship. I'm not a big fan of prying into the personal histories of our leaders (past or current), but I offer this as an example of how easy such general statements can inaccurately color one's perception of another. Much of this has to do with the extremely short amount of time allotted each President.Also of note is the use of a unique first person narrator for each President to complement the program's main narrator. There were some interesting and I'd say, questionable choices. I don't know, but radio personality Don Imus as the voice of Andrew Johnson just didn't work for me. For a basic introduction or overview of the big facts, you might find this documentary useful. But I would suggest looking elsewhere. My favorites are the Presidential documentaries produced by the PBS series, "The American Experience" over the past several years. This is a comprehensive, masterful, and thoroughly enjoyable series covering Presidents such as Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Nixon, and several others. Each program runs nearly four hours and is about as thoroughly-researched and comprehensive as you can get for T.V. while still being fun to watch."
American History Teachers should check out this one
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 12/19/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The simple but ironic rule of thumb for "The American President" PBS series is that the less you know about a particular President the more you will be impressed by a particular segment, and visa versa. Of course, this certainly makes sense. Reducing the Presidency of Washington, Lincoln or FDR into a 10-12 minute block is extremely reductionalistic. But for the lesser lights of history these segments can be quite revealing. I certainly had more respect for John Quincy Adams than I had before. This is not to say you will not learn anything new from the other segments; I was surprised to learn that Truman's poll numbers when he left office were lower than Nixon's before his resignation. The format is that each tape, with one exception, presents five American Presidents lumped together thematically: (1) "Family Ties" looks at those men born to the office: John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy; (2) "Happenstance" looks at most of Vice-Presidents who became "accidental" Presidents: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur and Harry Truman; (3) "An Independent Cast of Mind" covers John Adams, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes and Jimmy Carter; (4) "The Professional Politician" covers Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson; (5) "The American Way" features Thomas Jefferson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan; (6) "The World Stage" looks at internationalist presidents: James Monroe, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson and George Bush; (7)"The Heroic Posture" looks at the war hero Presidents: George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower; (8) "Compromise Choices" examine the administrations of Franklin Pierce, James Garfield, Warren Harding and Gerald Ford; (9) "Expanding Power" covers the imperial presidencies of Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon; and (10) "The Balance of "Power" finishes off the series with James Madison, James K. Polk, William Taft and Bill Clinton. It is impossible not to look at this arrangement and not see some obvious liabilities. LBJ does not get dismissed as an "accidental" President while Jefferson ends up representing the "American Way" more than an "Independent Cast of Mind." Putting Jefferson, Coolidge, Hoover, and Reagan in the same category seems rather forced. But this is just quibbling because once you decide not to proceed chronologically through the Presidents it is always going to be open to debate. This format at least sets up some comparisons and contrasts that would engender classroom debate (or you can feel free to quibble in the sanctuary of your own mind). Each program is narrated by Hugh Sidney, who has been the White House correspondent for Time magazine for as long as I can remember. Harvard scholar Richard Neustadt offers up academic preachments on each President, having interviewed most of the living Presidents for their own insights. Whenever possible the actual voices of the Presidents are used, while for the others John Glenn, Walter Cronkite, Morley Safer, Norman Schwarzkopf, and a host of others provide the voices (Bob Dole is Hoover and Colin Powell is Taft).Obviously this series is a godsend for history teachers who can pick and choose particular Presidents to show their class. For example, showing a class the segment on Hoover before getting to the Depression, FDR and the New Deal, would be quite beneficial. I would also think the segments on Buchanan, Cleveland and Ford would be particularly useful. I feel less secure recommending the segments on the more important Presidents since I have to think most textbooks will cover pretty much the same point. "The American President" series helps best when it fills in the gaps of your standard American history textbook. But if that is what you are teaching, then you should certainly invest some time going through this series and seeing what could work for you and your cherubs."
Despite organizational flaws...a benefit for the classroom!
Cameron J. Mahlum | St. Paul, MN United States | 05/11/2001
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Clearly the segregational approach is difficult to follow and at times puzzling. However, as a teacher of American History for 10th graders I have found the 12-15 minute biographies on each of the presidents very valuable. They are great supplemental sources. I could never show a 50 minute or 90 minute video on a president, but with this series I can address 2 or 3 within the 85 minute block that the course is taught. My students seemed engaged and because of the short snipet of time, the basic underpinnings of the presidents and their accomplishments stays pretty well focused. Without this my students would have been denied some good background on presidents such as McKinley, Taft, Hoover and Coolidge. Reorganization into a timeline of presidents would have made it a super source."
More education than mere entertainment
Sean Matheson | Peoria, IL USA | 10/15/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This video series is notable for its coverage of the "obscure" presidents, its fascinating collection of pictures and photographs, and its reflection of modern theoretical conceptions of the presidency. Other reviewers have questioned the format (which looks at presidents according to what they share in common, rather than the traditional chronological approach), but this format reflects an important theoretical approach in political science that compares presidents according to their position in "political time," rather than historical ordering.
This organizational format may certainly make the series more complicated and harder to understand for the general public or for high school students. The series may be best understood by college undergraduates who have encountered work by Stephen Skowronek.
In short, the series features wonderful material, but the organizational approach forces the viewer to actively think as he or she watches, not merely passively view the series. In effect, the series is more education than entertainment, and prospective buyers may want to keep this in mind."