28 August 2010 | rmax304823
Delightful Refresher Course.
This is a kind of "American History For Dummies," now needed more than ever, and supplied in a boxed set by A&E and the History Channel. The pace is fast, the presentation fascinating (even of the duller Chief Executives), and there is a neat addendum on the roles and characters of our First Ladies.
What, I think, will make it more accessible to people who need it most is that it feeds us the history of the United States through the experiences of individuals. I mean, it's not so much about ill-understood social movements like temperance or abolition or tariffs or the gold standard. Understanding such abstract and actually invisible cultural forces takes mental work. But it takes much less effort for us to get inside the head of a single individual and imagine how and why he faced individual challenges. This documentary sets psychology in the context of social history, a thing that's easy to understand but tough to do.
It's likely to perk up even the most jaded consumer of vampire movies. It poses questions, and suggests answers to them, like, "How does a president manage a wife who goes a little mad at times?" Lincoln had that little problem and so did Tyler and some others. (PS: Kids, John Tyler was a president.)
Oh, you can also acquire all kinds of what B. F. Skinner called incidental learning. As I write this, there is a great decrying of certain actual or proposed social programs because the Constitution doesn't mention them. "Take back our Constitution!" Did you know that there is nothing in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that authorizes the Vice President to succeed to the presidency if the president himself dies? No? How about the fact that the president's Cabinet is nowhere mentioned either? And did you realize that President James Buchanan kept a closet full of ladies' petticoats in the White House and that he knelt down and worshiped them every night? Well, okay, I just made that last part up but Buchanan's gender orientation was questioned and the time and is still being debated.
There are all sorts of nuggets of information that are oddly relevant to today's issues. Many of us want a smaller government. Well, no one wanted smaller government than Thomas Jefferson who might secretly have held a yearning for a confederation of city states like the Greek polis. Once in office, however, like so many other minimalists, he found it wasn't such a workable idea after all and used the federal funding system of his opponent, Hamilton, to make the Louisiana purchase and establish a series of military governorships.
I had to chuckle out loud when the mellifluous voice of the narrator, beginning his descripton of Grover Cleveland, announces that, "It was an era of extremes, when one eigth of the population owned seven eighths of the wealth." I found the "era of extremes" ironic because in 2007, the top tenth of the population owned three quarters of the nation's wealth and it's grown since then, according to Wikipedia. Who could have guessed that we were now living in a new Gilded Age?
It all comes across pretty colorfully, using a handful of bullet points to give the viewer a quick grasp of each man's personality, and at rare moments lapses into a kind of MTV style of editing in which images flash before your eyes at such a tempo that you wonder if you're having a mystic experience. But, mostly, you get brief but cogent histories of the presidents' backgrounds, families, the issues they faced, the way they faced those issues, and the legacies they left behind.
The narrative of the presidents is structured chronologically, beginning with Washington and ending with G. W. Bush, but the lengthy bonus feature on wives is built around themes -- their influence on policy, the renovation and decor of the Executive Mansion, their joy or despair at being the center of attention, the manner in which they handled crises such as assassinations, and the little quirks they exhibited, like dependence on spiritualism or astrology.
Most of us would probably benefit from a review like this. It's suitable for showing in any high school class in American History or, the heck with it, in college classes too.