A selection of executive branch-centered episodes from the 60 Minutes reporter's late-'90s A&E series, 20th Century with Mike Wallace: Politics and Presidents could have been more precisely entitled Politics, Presidents, and Television. Rather than beginning with the turn of the (19th) century to cover literally the entire previous century's presidential politics, it picks up just where broadcast media does: with the radio presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. But that narrower scope than might be implied by the title does not really diminish the series; it has a fair amount of insight into the role TV played in presidential politics, for better or worse, and that other, more self-reflexive story is what manages to set it apart from a conventional history-book revisitation of the American Presidency from FDR to Clinton.
The series is divided into 10 45-minute parts; parts 1-7 (the Eisenhower-era-themed Epidemic of Fear through The Impeachment of Clinton) are a more or less chronological recap of the presidencies (again, as they were covered on television), with parts 8-10 reserved for considerations of topics seemingly peripheral to the presidency: First Ladies, presidential scandals, and media coverage of a president's private life. The bulk of the episodes cover ground that has already been covered (well, already covered if we give our high-school historical educations more credit than they probably deserve), but they are far from redundant. Wallace is the controlling presence here, introducing and framing everything in brief introductory and "final thought" segments, but the context he gives when he introduces each portion of the program is often useful in understanding it (one's tolerance for Wallace's glad-handing TV persona, and the generally middle-of-the-road, carefully inoffensive 60 Minutes-like format of the series, being the wild card). The archival footage (all from 60 Minutes's home network, CBS, of course) is fascinating and well-organized; there is plenty that's "educational" here for someone unfamiliar with the history being covered, but Wallace and Co. also build upon the more well-known timeline of events with some less obvious tidbits. We all knew about John F. Kennedy's womanizing and tragic murder, for example, but did we know he was a sufferer of Addison's Disease dependent, à la Bigger Than Life, on massive doses of cortisone for his ability to function? Were you aware of the contradictory fact that Robert F. Kennedy was on the Red-scare crusade, shoulder to shoulder with Nixon, before they faced off for the '68 presidency (a confrontation horrifically cut short by RFK's assassination and the ensuing nightmare of the '68 Democratic Convention)? Or of the equally contradictory fact that it was Nixon's earlier, rabid anti-Communism that let him make nice toward Mao's China without raising suspicion? And what ever did happen to Joe McCarthy after he was finally booed off the national stage? (The segment on McCarthy also offers cinephiles a special thrill in the form of a later interview with blacklisted auteur Edward Dmytryk). These installments offer a decent (if somewhat predictable) refresher, but they also go just enough deeper to hold the attention of those already studied up on their 20th-century U.S. history.
Still, the series really hits its stride in the final three episodes. Up until that point, there has been throughout an awareness of television coverage and its undeniably powerful role in politics, and we can see the medium's double-edged-sword nature playing out: it could allow McCarthy to pull the wool over the eyes of the American people by broadcasting his witch hunts, yes; but it could also reveal to us the true chaotic horror of what was going on in Vietnam--neither of which would have received nearly as much attention without being mass-broadcast into millions of people's homes across the nation. But these concluding episodes give Politics and Presidents its raison d'être; despite the logical context of the ones leading up to them, they could easily work on their own as a self-contained three-parter. Episode 8, First Ladies, may be the most purely entertaining here; these presidential spouses offer a variety of public personae, from demure (Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower) to drop-dead glamorous (Jackie Kennedy, natch) to unabashedly involved (Hillary Clinton) to disingenuous (Nancy Reagan) that puts those of their necessarily, uniformly suited-and-tied husbands to shame. That parade of personalities offers a nice little respite from the preceding, frequently disillusioning and sobering history, and prepares us for the final two episodes, which are the best, and most provocative, of the bunch. (Even if you did not have the time or inclination to watch all 10 episodes, it would be entirely possible to watch just these essential two without really losing any context.)
It is, fittingly, in Upstairs at the White House (how little we knew of the President's sex lives in the past!) and Washington's Scandals: Sex, Money, Power (corrupt congressmen fan the flames of media and public appetite for scandal!) that Wallace and his footage get down to not just acknowledging, but really examining the media-ization of the presidency. This is where we are made most aware that the majority of Politics and Presidents's episodes put together during and after the extremely divisive, tabloid-fed Clinton impeachment, when the time was certainly right to ask what the President owes the media and what the media, in turn, owes the people when it comes to revelations about the private lives of our leaders. The footage of the endless pettiness and squabbling, broadcast around the clock on cable and network news, that bogged down the legislative and executive branches during the Lewinsky "scandal" and media circus brings home with depressing clarity the fact that it was all done with media manipulation in mind, and the ease with which anything juicy and shocking can be used to manipulate journalists, reporters, editors, and, ultimately, the public. Wallace ends on a dubious (if somewhat self-serving) note about the 24/7 news cycle and the public thirst for gossip and scandal that has so easily and thoroughly overtaken policy or platform discussions over the past decades.
What these programs effectively remind us of is that it is not the presidency that has changed (Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate child by a prostitute yet was still elected, and FDR and JFK both had the kind of unexamined, unfettered erotic lives that Clinton could only have dreamed of), but the way in which we approach, examine, and interpret it; it is at its most instructive when addressing the rise and fall of television as a central, actually useful part of American life when it comes to following and understanding our elected representatives. It is paradoxical that Politics and Presidents, hosted by a network news stalwart and comprised almost entirely of network news footage, was made for and shown on cable at the dawn of an era that, with huge drop-offs in network viewership, may just see the networks (or at least their news divisions) overtaken and rendered obsolete by cable and the internet. It can thus be seen as not just a look back at its nominal subject, but also as a last reminder, recap, and warning from the final, possibly terminal stages of a format whose arc goes from dependable and responsible at its auspicious beginning to pandering, exploitative, and reckless in its decline. THE DVD:
The picture on Politics and Presidents actually offers a faithful snapshot of the evolution of TV visual quality from its inception through to the turn of the 21st century, from kinescopes to 16 mm to several grades of videotape. That means that the visuals are of varying quality, but very nicely representative of all original source materials, and, as usual for television programs of this type when released on disc, the image quality is probably better than it would have been when the series was first run.
The Dolby digital 2.0 soundtrack is excellent; again, the older the source materials, the more "inferior" (by contemporary standards) the sound, but everything is rendered very faithfully and clearly.
The "extras" are somewhat disappointing; each disc merely contains a selection of textual "where are they now?" biographies of some of the more prominent figures covered by that disc's episodes. There is a pretty nicely put together booklet that offers further background for each episode and an impressively self-deprecating pair of graphs that show the simultaneous rise in number of American households with television and decline in network audience shares.
The somewhat conventional, occasionally too mild-mannered presentation of 20th Century with Mike Wallace: Politics and Presidents cannot stifle the rich, wide-ranging historical, political, and cultural interest of this in-depth series, which goes at the executive branch from various angles and comes up with a number of interesting, even idiosyncratic gems in addition to a solid survey of the period in presidential politics it covers. It would be legitimate to ask whether, taken as a whole, the series maintains enough momentum to warrant a 10-episode length; but certainly, the majority of them--the final three, in particular--are informative and entertaining, and worthwhile enough overall to be Recommended.