Quick-hit version of `Hail to the Chief'

Review: PBS's 41 thumbnail sketches in `The American President' offer informative and at times moving entertainment.

April 08, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Cramming 41 biographies into 10 hours of TV would be a mistake. Thankfully, PBS's "The American President" doesn't even try, opting instead to provide thumbnail sketches of the political philosophies and presidential accomplishments of the 41 men who have occupied the highest office in the land.

Sure, the segments only skim the surface, and history buffs will probably hear little they don't already know. And while some segments seem distressingly brief -- with an average of only 15 minutes per president, how can you possibly sum up Washington, Lincoln or FDR? -- overall, it's an entertaining, informative and sometimes even moving look at each president.

Many Americans probably have never heard of Rutherford B. Hayesand may be delighted to find out such an independent-minded, principled man once lived in the White House. How many people know that the Harrison family was a 19th-century political dynasty to rival the Roosevelts, or that Zachary Taylor was Jefferson Davis' father-in-law? How many people remember John Tyler at all?

Beginning tomorrow and running through Thursday, with two one-hour programs airing each night, "The American President" looks at its subjects not chronologically -- George Washington is nowhere to be seen tonight -- but rather groups them according to certain themes.

Thus, the series starts off with "Family Ties," a look at four presidents -- John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Harrison, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy -- who were members of illustrious, politically connected families.

Tomorrow's second hour focuses on presidents of "Happenstance," five vice-presidents who ascended to the office only because the president died. (There have been eight such successions, but Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson have been lumped into other groups).

A second term

Interesting that of the five profiled here -- John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur and Harry S. Truman -- only one, Truman, enjoyed being president. Perhaps that explains why Truman was the only one later elected to his own term of office.

"The American President" is filled with intriguing little factoids -- Tyler, for instance, so enraged Whig party leaders that he was expelled from his own party.

There are also some fabulously candid presidential quotes, such as FDR's thoughts on presidential action: "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

And here's John Adams on the job itself: "No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on attaining it."

There are also some disturbing words, perhaps none more so than Andrew Johnson's pledge, "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men." This from the man who succeeded Lincoln.

When it comes to analysis, the series could use more perspectives on the presidents than it offers. Outside narrator Hugh Sidey and the 41 men themselves, the only words we hear are those of historian Richard Neustadt.

True, the Harvard professor has a certain folksy charm and makes acute observations. (Of independent spirits who stand by their beliefs and refuse to play the political game, Neustadt says, "It's great theater, but it's not governing.") It would be nice, however, to hear some other voices.

Four of the five living officeholders -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Bill Clinton -- were interviewed for the series and provide color commentary for their segments. (Ronald Reagan, battling Alzheimer's, could not participate).

And, beginning with Truman, who held office from 1945 to 1953 and lived until 1972, old recordings enable us to hear them talk about their own presidencies.

For Washington through FDR, however, sound recordings are scarce at best.

Just printed words

So we hear excerpts from their writings and speeches from the mouths of politicians (John Glenn reads Hayes, Bob Dole reads Herbert Hoover); generals (Colin Powell reads William H. Taft, Norman Schwarzkopf reads Ulysses S. Grant); entertainers (Don Imus reads Andrew Johnson), and even presidential descendants (James Roosevelt Jr. reads FDR).

Not all of the voices seem appropriate to the presidents -- Morley Safer as John Adams didn't ring true in these ears; neither did George Will as Adams' son, John Quincy Adams -- but the variety adds another interesting element to a series that displays no shortage of them.

Tomorrow's TV

What: "The American President"

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m., tomorrow through Thursday

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

In brief: 41 engagingly brief looks at 41 presidents

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