Fireworks for C-SPAN

August 07, 1999|By Aaron Barnhart | Aaron Barnhart,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

If you want to catch TV's most captivating series this summer, don't look to HBO. Don't look to MTV. Look to C-SPAN.

The weekly "American Presidents: Life Portraits," three-hour treatments of each of the nation's 41 chief executives, may be television's most ambitious documentary project ever.

But aside from its obvious value to history buffs, what makes "American Presidents" so compelling are the unexpected, often contentious debates that take place between the program's featured historians and its viewers who call in and offer very different takes on the American presidents.

It only took five minutes of the first program last March for the intellectual food to fly. As viewers watched the snow fall outside the colonial home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, Va., C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb took a phone call from a man in Denver who introduced himself as "a descendant of slaves."

"It is so easy for white people to get on TV and vouch about the character of people they did not know personally who would enslave a whole group of people," the caller said.

Without missing a beat, Lamb tossed the question to his guest, biographer Richard Norton Smith. The two men had been chatting on live TV about Washington's wooden teeth, but now Smith's tone turned cautious. "What you try to do is not so much pass judgment, but to turn the clock back and try not to apply the standards of our own time.

"This is not to justify the institution," he said, "but to try to understand a man of good will who was in many ways trapped in an institution not of his own making."

This same scene has played itself out repeatedly on "American Presidents": African-American callers pouring out their anguish and bitterness at the country's great white fathers, and on-camera experts offering responses from apology to sympathy, usually to no one's satisfaction.

Other callers were clearly frustrated by the fixation on race.

To which Barry Paris, the lead guest on the Pierce program, replied, "The reason it's coming up constantly is that it came up constantly throughout this period and obsessed the country."

Paris is one of the few biographers in the series so far to denounce his subject's views on slavery as "racist" and "genocidal."

"You do judge people, not by 1999 standards, but by timeless, universal ethical standards," said Paris later from his home in Pittsburgh. "There were people in 1852 who knew that slavery was wrong."

Despite their criticisms of the presidents and of C-SPAN, many of the callers who identify themselves as African-Americans appear to be as hooked on the series as anyone. So what does C-SPAN's Lamb think about the direction "American Presidents" has taken? "I love it," he said. "I love it when somebody calls in with something that upends everybody. I prefer that to bringing in my own agenda."

Lamb admitted that most of the historians who appear on the series "aren't normally challenged in this way," from anonymous inquisitors. The series producers are trying to book nonwhite historians, but Lamb said it's not easy since "most history is written by white males."

Several African-American historians have appeared on "American Presidents." Professor Allan Ballard was interviewed for one segment of the Ulysses S. Grant program. Annette Gordon-Reed discussed her book on Thomas Jefferson's relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

"This issue, which is very much an issue in our society today, has been the most talked-about thread in this series," Lamb said. "And if a group of people in this country who are normally not heard from are exercising their opportunity to be heard here, that's great."


On C-SPAN at 9 a.m. Mondays (repeats at 8 p.m. Fridays).

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