All kinds of sweeping pronouncements can be made about the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II, the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War, among other important events in the history of the United States, but in good examinations of history, the little things matter too. The Presidents, the History Channel’s eight-part documentary about every president of the United States up to George W. Bush at the time this series aired in 2004, understands this, and shows the little details that make a president more human, or different sides to a president one might not have even considered.

Therefore, amidst portraits, re-enactments, media footage, and the expected preponderance of talking heads, we learn that George Washington visited every state in the new union; that on March 4, 1925, Chief Justice William Howard Taft swore in Calvin Coolidge, the first and only time an ex-president swore in a president; that the 1980 election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan was held on the one-year anniversary of the taking of 52 American hostages in Iran; and George H.W. Bush was the first sitting vice president to win a presidential election since Martin Van Buren in 1836.

George WashingtonThe footage of later presidents is stunning. Watch for the moment during President Truman’s segment, during his re-election campaign, in which he rides in a car in a parade and then pay close attention. See his train pulling away at what seems like Union Station in Los Angeles? See him giving a speech at that podium? Those three clips don’t even look like they’re from 1948! They look like they were taken two weeks ago!

The Presidents is also useful in looking at the administrations we were born into and grew up in. I was born during Reagan’s re-election run, but I do remember some of George H.W. Bush’s administration (mainly what was on the news and my parents talking about it), and it’s fascinating to watch their speeches, to watch how they interacted with the press, especially in Bush’s case when he’s asked by an off camera reporter in the Oval Office why he isn’t more overjoyed about victory in Kuwait. It’s also interesting to think about not only these moments during a presidency and the events that defined them, but also about the obvious dedication behind the scenes to make this documentary series as thorough as it can be. History teachers could easily use this as a teaching tool, providing students with an overview of a president’s administration, and then getting more specific if need be.

It’s appropriate that Edward Herrmann is the narrator. Known nowadays for his role as patriarch Richard Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, he played Franklin Delano Roosevelt in two TV movies in the late 1970s, again in the movie musical Annie, and played two unnamed presidents in two NBC miniseries: Pandora’s Clock in 1996, and Atomic Train in 1999. In fact, even if you haven’t seen him in any of these productions, you could look at the clip of him used during the Gilmore Girls theme song, when he takes off his glasses, and easily imagine him as a president. He keeps up a quick-paced tempo that works well for this series.

The only issue to be found amidst the vast usefulness of The Presidents is speculation by the various talking heads, made up of authors, directors of various institutions, and others, including Jimmy Carter himself. During the segments on presidents in the 1800s, they speculate far too much about what could have been if a president had done this or that instead of what they actually did. In the facts lie the stories and therefore what remains fascinating about these men. Speculation is generally useless because history is concrete. It happened. That’s it. It’s as if these men and women try to distinguish themselves from the other talking heads for no other purpose than to raise their own profile, to the detriment of the series. It’s not rampant, but there are enough stories in the history of these presidencies alone. There’s already enough to eat up.

The impressiveness of The Presidents is made even more apparent in the face of the 90-minute documentary All the Presidents’ Wives, about the first ladies of the United States. What the presidents did in their administrations impacted the country and the world, but the first ladies are no less important. They were there while history was being made. They supported their husbands in good and bad times. But whereas The Presidents is a grand, extensive look at who these men were and what they believed in and strived for while in office, All the Presidents’ Wives feels like it was made by a second-string team, like the first ladies weren’t worthy enough to have a documentary that equals The Presidents. And why not?

It’s gossipy at times, and there’s no linear timeline as there is in The Presidents, going back and forth between all decades, as if they’re trying to make connections between first ladies that don’t always seem to be there. Perhaps the day will come when the first ladies merit a four-DVD set like this one, with a documentary more professionally made.

Because this is an election year and is therefore the best time to re-release this DVD set, an episode of the A&E series Biography is included, centered on Barack Obama. There’s also a timeline of the presidents in case you’re not sure when Grover Cleveland had his two nonconsecutive terms.

This rerelease of The Presidents is so obviously a cash grab, but it’s one I wholeheartedly support because it’s in thinner packaging, teachers can get it for their classrooms, and those who get tired of the election-year rhetoric that’s bound to fly beyond what we’re seeing right now can wander through the landscape of past presidencies, seeing the origins of what we live with today, as well as policies that don’t exist today. It’s fine work in an attractive package.



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