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Case Number 21583: Small Claims Court

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The Making Of The President: The 1960s

Acorn Media // 1963 // 313 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // June 18th, 2011

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All Rise...

I wrote a manuscript for The Making of Judge Jim Thomas: 1962. My mom was not amused.

The Charge

"For it is the nature of politics that men must always act on the basis of uncertain fact, must make their judgments in haste on the basis of today's report by instinct and experience shaped years before in other circumstances."—Theodore H. White.

The Case

The Sixties was a pivotal decade for the presidency. The emergence of television as a major player created greater public awareness of the process, ultimately leading to the primary system as we know it. Athena brings us The Making of the President: The 1960s, a landmark series of television documentaries that chart the presidential elections in one of the most turbulent decades in our nation's history.

In 1961, political journalist Theodore H. White published The Making of the President: 1960. The book, an analysis of the 1960 election, captured the nation's attention. Not only did it explain the ins and out of the primaries, conventions, and campaigns that culminated in the general elections, but it brought a novelistic style that brought the proceedings to life, humanizing the candidates to a degree never before dreamt of. The focus was on placing the campaign in context, rather than performing a postmortem with the benefit of hindsight. The book was not only a bestseller, but it also bagged the 1961 Pulitzer for general nonfiction, and even became a classroom staple (it was one of the texts for the Poly Sci 101 class I took in the mid-Eighties).

The book was adapted as a documentary, airing in 1964. It was finished shortly before Kennedy's assassination, but the producers chose to air the documentary unaltered. The special racked up several Emmy awards, and the die was cast for successive books and specials.

People are probably more aware of the 1960 election than either 1964 or 1968 due to the Kennedy-Nixon debate, a watershed moment if ever there was one. However, it took a lot of maneuvering for each candidate to capture his party's nomination. Here we learn of the early Democratic primaries, in which JFK battled Hubert Humphrey while other candidates, such as Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson, skipped the primaries and focused on the convention. Back then, you see, only about fourteen states had primaries; most of the delegates were controlled by local party bosses. JFK was a relative unknown, so the primaries were critical—not so much for the delegates won, but for the credibility that the wins gave him with the rest of the party. JFK had to prove to the party bosses that his youth, his privileged background, and, above all, his Catholicism, would not doom his campaign outright—particularly since Harry Truman was less than enthusiastic about Kennedy's candidacy. Johnson and Stevenson, on the other hand, were known quantities; they could collect delegates in the back room and then use their experience to build a coalition at the convention.

Selecting the Republican nominee was much less dramatic. Nixon was the sitting vice president and thus the presumptive nominee. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller gave serious consideration to mounting a challenge, but it quickly became apparent that his liberalism was too great an obstacle to overcome.

Trivia: In 2007, a board game called The Making of the President: 1960 was released.

There were no challengers to Johnson, so the nomination section focuses on the Republican candidates. Nixon was out of the picture at the point, so it quickly became a study in opposites, the ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater versus the arch-liberal Rockefeller. Party moderates, fearing that Johnson would obliterate either candidate, searched for a moderate alternative. They found one in Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, but by the time Scranton got in the race, Goldwater was too entrenched.

The general election played out much as the GOP had feared, with Johnson easily painting Goldwater as a dangerous extremist. The (in)famous "Daisy Girl" ad, which featured an image of a little girl that segued into a nuclear launch countdown, is included.

All hell broke loose during 1968, so it really shouldn't come as any surprise that the presidential election reflected the same sort of chaos. Johnson seemed to have the nomination in hand, but the growing antiwar sentiment had eroded his support more than anyone initially realized. Eugene McCarthy's antiwar platform led him to within a few percentage points of a stunning upset over Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Sensing Johnson's weakness, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and LBJ found himself beset on all sides, leading him to abruptly withdraw from the race, leaving the party in chaos. The assassination of Robert Kennedy on the night that he established himself as the frontrunner made matters even worse. On the other side of the aisle, things were, in their own way, just as odd. Once again you had two polar opposites—this time it was Rockefeller on the left and Ronald Reagan on the right. Nixon, correctly sensing the mood of the party, cannily charted a middle course and won the nomination, leaving the entire party scratching its head, going "Nixon? WTF?!?"

Trivia: Mitt Romney's dad, Michigan governor George Romney, attempted to mount a challenge to Nixon when it became obvious that Rockefeller and Reagan were going nowhere. Romney proved to be singularly inarticulate, and his challenge fell quickly by the wayside.

The 1968 segment does a wonderful job of capturing the underlying tension of the electorate; it's probably the strongest of the three specials.

Looking at the three films together, the key strength is the documentary footage. Candidates in candid moments, in earlier times—Nixon is soooo different that the post-Watergate image. Humphrey announced his withdrawal from the 1960 race only to have someone in the room strike up a pro-Humphrey folksong on a guitar; it's a spectacularly awkward moment, with Humphrey trying to maintain some semblance of dignity while thanking the man. The footage from RFK's shooting shows Eugene McCarty's campaign workers in tears, trying to get information. Comments in passing about suggested changes to the primary system that would eventually result in bringing the nominating process out of the smoke-filled rooms. With the exception of a few inserts from White himself in the 1968 installment, there are no talking heads; everything is pieced together from archival footage.

Each special whetted my appetite for more.

Not surprisingly, the video looks pretty much like newsreel footage from fifty years ago. It appears that a certain amount of effort was taken to restore the image, but it's still in bad shape. The 1968 special is in bleeding, inconsistent color. Audio is thankfully better. While the audio that accompanies the archival footage is on occasion pretty rough, the narration is in solid shape.

There are a couple of extras: "A Thousand Days" is a JFK tribute that was first shown at the 1964 convention, and is a case study in mythmaking. Here is where the legend of Camelot took hold, largely at Jackie Kennedy's insistence. "The March of Time: Seven Days in the Life of the President" is a (relatively) candid look at LBJ's day-to-day activities. It's interesting, but there's really nothing there you couldn't get from watching a few episodes of The West Wing.

Accompanying each special is a quick biography for each of the contenders.

The Verdict

Technical faults notwithstanding, this set is a must have for anyone with an interest in presidential politics. I finished each special with a better understanding of the election, but also wanting more.

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 91

Perp Profile

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 313 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes
• Contender Biographies

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