Not Your Father's Presidents; Series Gives History MTV-Style Makeover

Article excerpt


"No man who ever held the office of president would ever congratulate a friend on obtaining it," John Adams once told his son, John Quincy Adams. Both served only one term.

Reminders of the singular honor and strain of the presidency abound in the History Channel's new eight-hour documentary "The Presidents," which airs in four parts Jan. 18- 21 at 8 p.m. Narrated by acclaimed actor Edward Herrmann - a memorable Franklin D. Roosevelt in two made-for-TV miniseries in the 1970s - "The Presidents" offers a smooth narrative of the past 216 years, a diverting recap of the highlights and low points of the 43 administrations that have governed America's executive branch.

Based on the book "To the Best of My Ability," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson, "The Presidents" is decidedly conventional in its history. Still, this is not your father's - or Ken Burns' - documentary.

The overwhelming sweep of history between the inaugurations of Georges Washington and Bush would ordinarily demand a fast clip; but "The Presidents" takes things a step beyond, with MTV-friendly split-second editing, zippy graphics, distorted psychedelic imagery and continuous musical accompaniment, some of it suited less to thoughtful reflection on 18th-century statesmanship than to an all-night rave below TriBeCa.

Each of the chief executives is introduced through computer-generated baseball cards whose reverse sides, revealed after the obligatory swooshing, proffer trivial bullet points about their personalities in jarringly modern psychobabble. Thus, John Adams was hindered by "poor people skills." James Monroe was a "hands-off manager." Chester A. Arthur, depicted by a mutton-chopped actor smilingly double-fisting two bottles of liquor, is described as a "high-living New York party animal." And Millard Fillmore, who took office after illness felled Zachary Taylor, is derided as "an accidental president" and "the Gerald Ford of his day" beneath (scarily old-looking) footage of Mr. Ford pratfalling down the steps of Air Force One.

And while it might be naive to expect a documentary about politicians to be devoid of politics, the scarcely hidden political sympathies of the producers are also in accord with the MTV Weltanschauung. Early on, for example, we are informed that Washington's frequent rides atop his white horse, Nelson, formed "a vital part of [his] public-relations package - his version of a tailhook landing." Here the producers juxtaposed an illustration of Washington on his horse with the unforgettable footage of President Bush in his flight suit celebrating the end of "major hostilities" in Iraq.

The portion about John Quincy Adams states as fact, over more footage of the younger Mr. Bush, that he, like our current president, sought "to exorcise his father's political demons." Later still, a historian asserts, without challenge, the "important parallels" between the presidencies of William McKinley and Bush 43: "There certainly was a sense in McKinley's day that corporate America had taken control of political America, and many people feel that way today."

Columbia University's Eric Foner bemoans the "presidents nowadays" who claim to "know what God believes." Jimmy Carter, the lone president heard from in latter-day interviews, enjoys the unique luxury of defending his record in office. On the incumbent, we have historian and former CNN executive Walter Isaacson criticizing, again without challenge, Mr. …