History Channel // 2002 // 178 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // June 25th, 2009
The women in Presidents' lives.
Ostensibly a provocative look into the First Ladies who have lived in the most recognizable house in the country, this two-disc DVD set from the History Channel is not what it seems. Each disc contains a 90-minute documentary, with the first focusing on wives and the other on mothers. Both offer lots of historical background, but neither is as thought-provoking as one would like.
All the Presidents' Wives (2004): Arguably the better of the two docs, this one gives us a window into the lives of many of the First Ladies. The disappointing thing is only about a 1/3 of these women are covered in some detail, and there are ones which are highlighted (i.e. Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Todd Lincoln) several times.
First Mothers (2002): While this second doc lives up to its title, it's not nearly as engrossing. All it really does is present a one-sided view of the mothers of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. It's nice that we here from some of the Presidents themselves, but this is more about back-patting than anything else.
Call me hard to please, but I would have preferred a chronological breakdown of all the First Ladies from Martha to Laura. There are some lesser-known ones in All the Presidents' Wives who get only briefly mentioned. One such example is Franklin Pierce's wife, who never wanted her husband involved in politics and even prayed the night before the election for him to lose. She considered it a sign when their only son tragically died in a train accident while on their way to D.C. All throughout Pierce's term, she locked herself in her bedroom writing letters to her dead son. To me, this is more compelling information than Jacqueline Kennedy filming a tour of the White House.
Cherry-picking aside, All the Presidents' Wives does mention a good number of these women and their experiences. And it questions what role the First Lady serves when no duties are mentioned in the Constitution. Aside from Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan, the program rightfully discusses Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison in some detail. Another compelling subject is Ira Garfield, and how she dealt with her husband's assassination. Alas, more of the women could have been covered, such as Buchanan's orphaned niece who became First Lady to the only President who never married. How did she feel about this arrangement?
As for the First Mothers doc, it plays more like a Mother's Day special than anything else. None of these women actually "lived" in the White House. Their influence and political views were obviously passed on to their sons. The program only feels the need to showcase the recent Presidential Mothers, and not talk about any others in history. In fact, the only reason it mentions Abigail Adams is by default, as Barbara Bush wasn't the first woman to act as First Lady & Mother. There are choice sections, particularly when mentioning the goal-driven spirit of Mrs. Carter or the premature death of Mrs. Ford. Otherwise, this doc is entirely negligible.
The History Channel gives us basically two discs with sorry menus and no bonus features. Both programs were produced this decade, so the full frame images are acceptable in terms of color and visuals. The stereo track and closed captioning is also palatable. In essence, Women In The White House is a good-looking package with nothing much inside, making it a near waste.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 178 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: First Mothers