An absolutely massive ("ginormous" would be an accurate term in this case) box set, fans of political history will be thrilled at "The Presidents", a 15-DVD box set that runs about thirty-five hours and profiles no less than Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry S. Truman, the Kennedys, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, James E. Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Each of the titles generally runs around 200 minutes or so, and are all housed in thin cases in a large slipcover box.
The set, which would be an outstanding addition to any school's library, takes an in-depth and balanced look at the life and career of each of the men, examining both their public and private persona, as well as the legacy of their presidency and how their past shaped their path and career. The programs offer a remarkable amount of footage from the archives, including rare interviews with family, friends, colleagues, biographers and many others. Overall, these programs are fascinating viewing, especially interesting to watch with another election coming up soon.
Descriptions from the set:
From PBS American Experience: THE PRESIDENTS COLLECTION
George H. W. Bush
When George H. W. Bush left the Oval office in 1992, rejected after one tumultuous presidential term, his thirty-year career in public service came to an abrupt and unexpected end. Despite soaring approval ratings following military victory in the Persian Gulf, his years after the war were marked by a sluggish economy and an almost unrelieved decline in his popularity. His decision to raise taxes—despite an explicit campaign oath—may have cost him a chance at reelection. By the end of his term many observers dismissed him as an artifact of an irrelevant Cold War past.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents the first in-depth assessment of the forty-first president of the United States, drawing upon new scholarship and unparalleled access to figures in Bush’s private and public life. This film reveals Bush as a pivotal player during a critical moment in American and world history and in a powerful political dynasty. Bush’s personal letters and interviews with his closest advisors and prominent critics inform the film, which features interviews with First Lady Barbara Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, and more.
JIMMY CARTER traces the ascent of an ambitious country boy from a peanut farm in Plains, Georgia, to the Oval Office; it examines the failings of Carter’s political leadership in the context of the turbulent 1970’s and explores the role religion played in his career. Jimmy Carter ran for president as an outsider. He rode into power in the post-Watergate disaffection with Washington politics. But his inexperience resulted in an ineffectual and fractured administration. Inflation, recession, and a humbling hostage crisis blew his presidency dramatically off course. The crowning achievement of his one term in office, the Camp David Accords, which established a framework for peace in the Middle East, was the inspiration for his life after the White House. In the years since, Carter has recast himself as a giant of moral leadership. The film features interviews with many close the Carter administration, including his wife Rosalynn, son Chip, Press Secretary Jody Powell and Vice President Walter Mondale.
When he left the White House in 1989, Ronald Reagan was one of the most popular presidents of the century. A former Hollywood star and seemingly simple man, Reagan was consistently underestimated by his opponents. One by one, he overcame them all. Incorporating interviews with key political insiders, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and members of the Reagan family, REAGAN explores the man who saw America as a “shining city on a hill” and himself as its heroic defender. The program follows Regan’s life from his itinerant boyhood in Illinois to his battle with “communist agitators” in the Screen Actors Guild and his dramatic 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter. Only 70 days into his presidency, a would-be assassin’s bullet left him more debilitated than anyone knew. Reagan’s massive military buildup and bold challenges to the Soviet Union caused his critics to portray him as a trigger-happy cowboy. But he negotiated deep cuts in nuclear weapons and resolved to end the Cold War. Five years after leaving office, Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer’s disease and dropped from public view.
He was an unpredictable dynamo, a “steamroller in trousers.” Brash and aggressive, Theodore Roosevelt embodied America at the turn of the century. The author of 36 books and 150,000 letters, he was a world authority on birds and large mammals, a cowboy, soldier, explorer, scientist—and president by the age of 42. Born into wealth, Roosevelt took on his own class from the Oval Office, regulating big business and introducing sweeping social reforms. He built the Panama Canal, won the Nobel Prize for Peace and left a permanent legacy of national forests and parks. But behind all his unbridled confidence was a man haunted by grief. TR: THE STORY OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT explores the influences of Roosevelt’s childhood, charts his meteoric rise to the presidency and explores the turbulent years after he left office. The result is an engaging portrait of a skillful politician, rugged outdoorsman, caring father and fascinating individual.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson led a reluctant America out of isolationism into a ghastly global conflict. I doing so he helped define the U.S. role on the world stage for the rest of the 20th century. Using photos, letters, newsreels, archival footage and beautifully filmed reenactments, WOODROW WILSON tells the story of a professor who became one of America’s greatest presidents. It’s the tale of an emotionally complex man who craved affection and demanded unquestioned loyalty. And it’s a fascinating portrait of a towering intellectual, one who appeared to espouse unwavering moral principles but who nonetheless shredded civil liberties during wartime and withheld support of civil rights and women’s suffrage.
His radio Fireside Chats were heard in millions of living rooms. His picture hung on the walls of homes and businesses. His wife was the most admired woman in America. He restored hope to a country that had lost it, led the nation during the greatest war in history, and championed the common man. Yet there was nothing common about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, neither his aristocratic beginnings nor his exuberant personality. He was a complex man who reached out to an adoring public but carefully hid his paralysis and unconventional marriage from the world. FDR goes beyond the familiar words and images to explore his hidden dimensions, creating an intriguing mosaic that includes rare archival film and home movies, newly filmed footage, and fascinating interviews with family members, friends, biographers, and eyewitnesses to the Roosevelt saga. What emerges is a surprising portrait of a towering figure, one who was called a traitor by his own privileged class and a hero by millions of ordinary Americans.
He was a farmer, a businessman gone bankrupt, an obscure Missouri politician almost unknown in Washington. Now Harry Truman was President. Of all the men who had held the highest office, he was the least prepared. But he would prove to be a surprise. Incorporating remarkable archival film footage and photographs, a wide range of eyewitness interviews, personal diaries and letters, and new film footage, TRUMAN traces the unlikely rise of a gritty American original. Taking over after Franklin Roosevelt’s death shocked the nation, Truman faced some of the biggest crises of the century. He would end the war with Germany, use the atomic bomb against Japan, confront an expanding Soviet Union and wage war in Korea—all while the woman he adored, his wife Bess, refused to stay in the White House and play the role of First Lady. Truman’s stubborn determination and Midwestern modesty eventually earned him the admiration of many middle-class Americans, who propelled him to a stunning political upset with the rallying cry, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.”
From Joseph Kennedy’s rise on Wall Street and then in government through John Kennedy’s presidency to Edward Kennedy’s fall at Chappaquiddick and eventual withdrawal from the 1980 presidential race, THE KENNEDYS explores the building of the Kennedy legend. It is a story in part created and then brilliantly promoted by the family itself, a story whose afterglow still captures the American imagination. Featuring extensive interviews with family members, friends and first-hand witnesses to the many chapters of the Kennedy saga, and using a wealth of still photographs and archival footage, this production is the first comprehensive documentary look at the shaping of the Kennedy fortune and dynasty by the family’s patriarch and master builder, Joseph P. Kennedy. His expectations for his sons—Joseph Jr., John, Robert and Edward—would drive each of them to heights he could never reach himself.
His personality was as big as Texas. His politics changed America and the world. Here is the definitive film biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, one of the most perplexing and fascinating figures ever to reach the Oval Office. LBJ presents the full sweep of his amazing life: an impoverished childhood in central Texas, the assassination of President Kennedy, the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam, the Great Society program and riots in the inner cities, and his withdrawal from politics, disillusioned and defeated.
NIXON tells the complete story of the rise and fall of one of our most powerful and controversial presidents. Richard Milhous Nixon was a man of contradictions, grand plans and petty grievances, an anti-communist crusader who used the power of his office to undermine his political enemies and to reach for a bold vision of world peace. From his boyhood in Yorba Linda, California, to his overwhelming victory in the 1972 election and his resignation just two years later, Nixon’s career was a repeating cycle of triumph and defeat. At the center of American politics for 25 years, few men were more admired, more vilified or more compelling than Richard Nixon.
VIDEO: The programs are presented differently: some of the more recently produced ones are in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, while the others are 1.33:1 full-frame. The episodes do look terrific, with the newer footage looking crisp, clean and detailed. Archive footage obviously does have a softer appearance, but I was a little surprised that the archive footage seemed cleaner than expected, with some footage showing only mild specks, marks and scratches. Some footage appeared more worn, but the overall impression was better than expected. While the programs were a mix of B & W and color, the color footage did boast natural, nicely saturated colors.
SOUND: Crisp, clear stereo audio.
EXTRAS: Adding to the feeling that this would be a great addition to school libraries, there are teacher's guides offered in PDF format on each of these programs. Some of the titles offer additional extras, including a bonus video on the George HW Bush title. The Woodrow Wilson edition is packed with additional supplements, including featurettes on race relations, women's suffrage, labor rights and more. The Wilson edition also offers interviews, galleries and profiles. The Kennedys set boasts an interview with historian Robert Dallek and a Kennedy family tree.
Final Thoughts: This jumbo-sized set will make a great holiday gift for those interested in political history and will also be a perfect choice for schools. The DVD presentation offers very good (considering the documentary material) audio/video quality, as well as a few extras.