An informative 41-week series that examines the lives of each of the 41 U.S. presidents entertainingly enlightens viewers as C-SPAN celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Two years ago, C-SPAN offered its viewers the well-received Alexis de Tocqueville Tour, a nine-month series that retraced the route the great French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America took during his visit to America in 1831-32.
Now the cable network, which provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings of Congress and a present-at-the-scene-while-it's-happening look at innumerable other political events, is deep into another undertaking to acquaint Americans with their own history. This time it is a 41-week series that each week covers one of the 41 presidents of the United States.
The aim is an ambitious one, and laudable. "We're not just taking a look at their presidency. We're taking a look at their whole lives, what it was like for them to grow up, what their families were like. We're trying to look at the whole man. What better way to learn American history?" says Mark Farkas, a C-SPAN producer who works on the series.
To achieve this task the network airs a variety of segments each week at various times -- visits to sites associated with the president of the week, talks with historians and biographers, interviews with staff members at the presidential homes and call-ins from people watching the programming. On Friday evenings all the programs that aired during the week are put together for a complete airing beginning at 8:00 p.m. EDT, when interested viewers can tape the programming.
They may not want to sit through it all, however. George Washington's programming aired from 8:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m. the next morning, for example. The program for James Monroe ran for five hours. What's amazing is that the programs often are entertaining, far from dull and always informative.
The secret may be C-SPAN's informal approach. The network's Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Brian Lamb hosts many of the segments, and it is Lamb's habit to let his guests have the spotlight. No one -- not even the professors -- lectures at viewers, and the format is casual enough that those watching never feel manipulated into taking a certain view on the man being discussed or feel that they're nothing but passive recipients of dead facts.
Why a series on our 41 presidents right now? In part, the series was prompted by a look for something to do between major election cycles and by a desire to do something significant to celebrate C-SPAN's 20th anniversary -- the network commenced operation on March 19, 1979.
But there was another reason, too: the Clinton scandals and the crisis those scandals precipitated in his presidency. "Clearly the series ties into [Clinton's] impeachment and its perspective in the entire history of all the presidents," says Marty Dominguez, C-SPAN database and marketing-services manager. "In a time like this, you do wonder about character."
The information that falls from the lips of the experts being interviewed often surprises. In one of the segments on Washington, for instance, Richard Norton Smith, the author of Patriot: George Washington and the New American Nation and director of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, notes that Washington wrote more than 40,000 letters during his life -- a very impressive number for our non-letter-writing times and a surprise considering the taciturn image most of us have of the first president.
But many of Washington's documents, the letters as well as other materials, have been difficult to retrieve because they were scattered among friends, family and others after his death. One early biographer even cut up documents in his possession to distribute the great man's signature to autograph hunters.
Also, as a young man, Washington wanted to run away from home to join the British navy, a …