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Posted on Sep 26, 2008 in Books and Movies

PBS’ The Presidents Collection – DVD Review

By Jerry D. Morelock

The Presidents Collection. PBS Paramount. 14-disc DVD set. $129.99.

How these former presidents dealt with issues that might have been lifted from today’s headlines are instructive and help put the challenges facing our presidential candidates today in their proper historical perspective.

As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, PBS has done potential voters – and anyone interested in the history of the U. S. presidency — a real service by releasing last month The Presidents Collection. Collected from the acclaimed PBS American Experience series, The Presidents covers 10 U. S presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to George H. W. Bush in 35 hours of outstanding documentary filmmaking. The ten chief executives and their tenures are: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09); Woodrow Wilson (1913-21); Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45); Harry S. Truman (1945-53); John F. Kennedy (1961-63); Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69); Richard M. Nixon (1969-74); Jimmy Carter (1977-81); Ronald Reagan (1981-89); and George H. W. Bush (1989-93). The volume on Jack Kennedy, in fact, is titled “The Kennedys,” and includes the stories of all of family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy’s children – Joe Jr., Jack, Robert, and Ted. Note that this set excludes president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-60) but don’t worry – Ike’s presidency was included in the previously released set, The American Experience: The Republicans. Both sets are available from on-line sellers such as, PBS, etc.


PBS should be particularly lauded for “reintroducing” present-day Americans to President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt in this outstanding documentary set. Unfairly overshadowed today by his better-known cousin, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, arguably, can be credited with re-inventing the office of the Chief Executive in a much more powerful, influential and “activist” role than in our country’s previous history (although Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War presidency stands out as a “pre-Teddy Roosevelt” exception). The first president who became popularly known by his initials (FDR, JFK and LBJ, of course, later continued the trend), “TR” was a progressive and the first U. S. president to call for universal health care and national health insurance, became a “trust buster” when he broke up greedy “Robber Baron” corporate monopolies, built the Panama Canal, was an activist environmentalist (when they were called “conservationists”), and was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1906 for settling the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War). Although TR is likely best remembered today for leading his Rough Riders in their famous charge up San Juan Hill (actually, adjacent Kettle Hill) during the Spanish American War in 1898, The Presidents Collection’s outstanding documentary on Teddy Roosevelt as man and president provides a much-needed, insightful re-examination of TR’s watershed presidential administration.

Each of the ten presidents covered in this new “must see” DVD set receives the same outstanding, in-depth examination that we’ve come to expect from the American Experience series. It is history as it ought to be presented, incorporating the innovative techniques pioneered in such landmark PBS series as Ken Burns’ ground-breaking The Civil War. The real-life drama of the people and events that shaped our past comes through in an exciting, interesting, and compelling style. You may have been reluctantly forced to read dull, date-driven history in high school; but you’ll want to see it actually unfold before your eyes in this outstanding DVD set.

Finally, for those who aren’t yet convinced that the issues former presidents faced decades or even a century ago are relevant to those our current slate of presidential candidates are expounding on today, consider just a few:

  • Teddy Roosevelt’s term was plagued by a festering, seemingly unending insurgency in a far off land. When he was elected Vice President, his youth and qualifications were criticized, as the 42-year old had previously only served, briefly, as a state governor.
  • Woodrow Wilson struggled with balancing civil rights and national security during wartime when some American minority groups were suspected of being sympathetic to U. S. enemies. Wilson chose national security over civil rights, backing warrantless searches, imprisonment of dissidents and suppression of the anti-war movement.
  • Franklin Roosevelt faced the country’s greatest economic challenge as banks failed, Wall Street crashed, corporations went bust and millions of Americans went jobless. FDR created social security and backed massive government bail out programs.
  • Harry Truman was considered by most Americans during his presidency as not qualified for the job, a “country bumpkin” whose approval ratings plummeted to the lowest on record. He stood up to North Korean aggression, but was less successful dealing with China.
  • Jimmy Carter confronted a militant, anti-American Iran bent on reshaping the political environment of the Middle East.
  • During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, he dealt with a nuclear-armed, aggressive-minded Russia, intent on expanding its spheres of influence.

How these former presidents dealt with issues that might have been lifted from today’s headlines are instructive and help put the challenges facing our presidential candidates today in their proper historical perspective – and may give them some valuable tips on how to handle them. PBS’ The Presidents Collection is “must see TV.”

Each DVD’s special features include a useful Teacher’s Guide.

Armchair General rates this DVD set FIVE STARS, our highest rating.