History special Gives 'presidents’ perspective

Publish date:
Updated on

Just in time for President Bush’s second inauguration, The History Channel is turning the spotlight on the men who have held the highest office in the land. The eight-part special The Presidents devotes an average of 10 minutes to each president (some, like Lincoln, get much more; others like William Henry Harrison of the 30-day tenure, far less).

Based on historian James McPherson’s book To the Best of My Ability, the special also takes a quick-hitting approach, parsing highlights and lowlights. Each segment begins with a “baseball card” featuring the president’s portrait, number and party and term. The back provides vital stats and short notes on personality and administration. No doubt, the cards will soon become fixtures in classrooms everywhere.

Presidents employs History’s tried-and-true documentary format of mixing comments with simulation. Some of the reenactments are recycled from other History docs, though eagle-eyed regulars might spot some misplaced-in-time sequences (e.g., footage from Teddy Roosevelt: An American Lion illustrating scenes from the Hayes administration).

The show’s commentators, mostly historians and authors, include McPherson, John Siegenthaler, David Gergen and even Walter Isaacson. Walter Cronkite, Bob Dole, James Baker, Leon Panetta, Wesley Clark and Jimmy Carter also supply insights. But a greater effort should have been made to include Bill Clinton — who has appeared in previous History projects — and the George Bushes, both of whom could have given excellent insight into several administrations, including their own.

The special does put the presidential timeline in perspective, laying a basic frame for our nation’s history. The expansive glance shows that scandals and poor decision-making are nothing new to the Oval Office. It also draws comparisons between earlier leaders and more recent ones, providing touchstones that make all eras relevant to viewers.

Casual history fans will appreciate the briefings and come away with a basic understanding of America’s presidential history. Hard-core history buffs may be dismayed by the in-and-out approach.

Overall, The Presidents is worth watching if only to catch up on the executives you know little about: How many know about Franklin Pierce’s contributions? But the special also gives a great overview of who we are as a people, as indicated by those we choose to run the country.

The eight-part special presentation debuts Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. ET, with the segment covering George Washington through James Monroe, and runs two installments nightly through Jan. 21, concluding with a look at the leaders from Carter through George W.