Judge Victor Valdivia once helped broker a peace agreement in his house over what DVD to rent. Beat that, Carter!
"In the next generation, the people who run the government will be the biggest people in America."—Joseph P. Kennedy, 1929
At a list of $129.98, The Presidents Collection might seem a bit pricey for a historical set, particularly when compared to the much cheaper History Channel series of the same name. Yes, it's more expensive and covers fewer presidents, but it's by far a better value. The level of detail and skill at storytelling on this set is so breathtaking that any history buff will want to jump at this set as soon as possible.
The Presidents Collection compiles several episodes of the excellent PBS series American Experience devoted to U.S. Presidents of the twentieth century, the time when, as Joe Kennedy (the father of John, Robert, and Teddy) predicted, the president's power grew bigger than that of any businessman or religious leader in America. Here are the presidents profiled on the set's fifteen discs:
Discs Two and Three
Discs Four and Five
Disc Six and Seven
Discs Eight and Nine
Discs Thirteen and Fourteen
The series is remarkably thorough. By focusing on only these presidents, it takes its time telling each story comprehensively. It's easy to see how each president's childhood and early years shaped his world view. Ronald Reagan, for instance, was a lifeguard when he was a teenager and would continue to view himself as a heroic lifesaver for the rest of his life, especially when he attacked Communism. Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson's mother would sometimes withhold affection from him when he underperformed in school, and that would lead to his unrelenting need for every single voter to love him. There are also some surprising revelations. When Jimmy Carter first ran for governor of Georgia in 1970, he actually devised his campaign to appeal to segregationists and conservatives, only committing publicly to civil rights after he won the election. Johnson, maybe the most ardent champion of civil rights in the White House, was even more of a committed segregationist in his days as a congressman from Texas. The episode on the Kennedys (which differs slightly from the others in that it covers the entire family history) has some fascinating snippets of outtakes from JFK preparing for one of his TV appearances and helps reveal just how much painstaking effort went into manufacturing the Kennedy mystique.
All the episodes are remarkably evenhanded, painting a portrait of each president's triumphs and failures. While this is immensely fascinating for the more celebrated presidents (like Reagan and FDR), it actually helps to reassess some of the less well-regarded ones. George H.W. Bush, in particular, is examined in detail and the surprising conclusion is that he may have been underrated. He turns out to have been the exact opposite of his son: he ran as a hard-right conservative, but actually governed as a centrist whose compromises may have been more perceptive than many initially thought. Theodore Roosevelt, all but forgotten today apart from his teeth and his "Speak softly and carry a big stick," is given his due as possibly the first (and maybe only) modern Republican progressive, who fought fearlessly for government regulations to protect consumers and break up monopolies. At the same time, his rabble-rousing behavior during World War I appealed to the basest, most xenophobic impulses in America. The series is smart enough to see both sides, to explain how a president's best qualities can also become his worst defects.
There are only a few nitpicks. Chief among them is that not all of the twentieth century's presidents are included here. Granted, the presidency of Bill Clinton is too recent to really assess accurately, and Gerald Ford barely governed for two years and was never elected. Plus, it's highly unlikely that anyone would really want to know that much about William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, or Warren G. Harding (although Harding's story would have been interesting, less for his policies and more for his outrageous scandals). Still, by far the biggest absence is that of Dwight D. Eisenhower. American Experience has actually done an episode about him, so why wasn't it included in this set? The Eisenhower show could have filled in many gaps in other episodes related to Cuba, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Also, some of the older episodes, such as "Richard Nixon" (from 1990) and "The Kennedys-The Early Years" (from 1992) could have used even a minor update or two, as there are a few moments that are dated.
The full-screen transfers and Dolby Stereo mixes are solid TV quality. The George H.W. Bush episode comes with an additional 5.1 Surround mix, but it's strangely redundant, as the surrounds are not used. Only the Wilson, Kennedy, and Bush episodes have any extra footage. The Wilson discs are by far the most elaborate, containing over 90 minutes of additional documentaries and featurettes on all aspects of the politics and social movements of his time. They're viewable separately or as part of an "enhanced" presentation where an icon appears onscreen that viewers can click on. The Kennedy discs also have some more documentaries and interviews, as well as a text-based Kennedy family tree. The Bush disc comes with a smattering of additional interviews. All the episodes also come with PDF files on each president that can be used as teaching tools.
Even without extras, the episodes of this set are of such a uniform high quality that it's hard to imagine a serious history buff passing on this set. Even non-history buffs will find these shows intelligent and entertaining enough to rival any fictional depiction of the presidency. As for the high list price, keep in mind just how dense and packed with information each episode is, and that each president gets no less than three solid hours devoted to his term, rather than the few minutes given on the History Channel series. Better save up, because The Presidents Collection is a must-have for any nonfiction DVD collection. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Additional Interviews and Documentaries (Woodrow Wilson, Kennedys, and George H.W. Bush discs only)
• IMDb: Reagan
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