StoryWho were the U.S. presidents? What did they accomplish? What qualities defined them, both as public figures and private men? In this made-for-PBS documentary series, brilliantly adapted from the acclaimed book The American President, these questions and others related to the presidents are answered with rare insight and intimacy. As in the book, the 41 lives of the 42 presidencies (Grover Cleveland served on separate occasions as the 22nd and 24th president) are not presented chronologically but are, rather, episodically linked by common personal traits and circumstances of their terms in office. For example, an episode called "The Heroic Posture" explores the careers of four presidents--Washington, Harrison, Grant, and Eisenhower--who came to their positions as a result of heroism in the service of their country. "Happenstance" looks at five presidents who moved from the vice-presidency to the White House upon the death of the president, and how these ascensions tested their worthiness as politicians. "An Independent Cast of Mind" weighs the pros and cons of presidencies marked by a lack of the messy political maneuvering that is apparently necessary for presidential success (none of the four portrayed--including John Adams and Jimmy Carter--achieved a second term).
This focus on the prominent aspects of these exceptional personalities brings an understanding of them that transcends their historical legacies. Broad portraits are painted here, the brushstrokes of which range from public policies and convictions to romantic indulgences (it's true--this kind of scandal is nothing new to the presidency) and even to certain presidents' smoking and drinking habits. Further bringing these stories to life is a seemingly exhaustive album of presidential photographs, voice characterizations by celebrated figures such as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Walter Cronkite, and revealing interviews with living former presidents (and one sitting president). Thorough, balanced, and fair, this series is destined to become a historical documentary classic and is a must-see for anyone interested in American history and the story of the most powerful office in the modern world. --Ed Noble