The Making Of The President: The 1960s DVD Review - three elections shape America

There are a number of different methods to view history. One is through the eyes of popular culture. For example, just mention the word “Disco,” and instantly we think of the '70s. There are also economics: mention the Wall Street quote “Greed is good” and people instantly think of the go-go '80s. Of course there is always the “shopping list” approach, in which one simply enumerates the various events that occurred during the year(s) in question. This is probably the most balanced, as we are left with our own conclusions in the end.

kennedy

A very intriguing way of looking at the tumultuous decade of the '60s is offered with The Making of the President: The 1960s. This is accomplished through the lens of the three presidential elections that occurred during those years. Writer Theodore H. White had the brilliant idea of following the 1960 campaign for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the President, 1960. His study proved so popular that it was turned into a two-hour television special. The show itself won four Emmys, including Program of the Year when it aired in 1963. This was obviously a lucrative subject for Mr. White, and he continued the series by covering the 1964 and 1968 election cycles. These were also turned into TV specials.

The Athena company has collected all three programs as a triple-DVD set called The Making of the President: The 1960s. Taken together, they offer a remarkable birds-eye view of what really happened during each cycle.

The first, The Making of the President, 1960 was completed before President Kennedy was assassinated, but did not air until afterwards. It opens with a disclaimer stating that the producers decided to show it in its original form, without alteration, as a tribute to the President. I am happy they chose this route rather than allowing sentimentality to dilute the basic facts. I imagine it was a tough decision at the time.

In 1960, the country seemed to be relatively happy overall. The battles for integration were gathering steam, but both parties’ platforms were for Civil Rights. One of the reasons the election was so close was the fact that the two candidates really did not seem that far apart on the issues. Nixon was the sitting Vice President for well-liked “Ike” Eisenhower, and had been there for eight years. Kennedy offered a vision of the new, and offered hope for a better world to the emerging baby-boom generation.

The accepted wisdom is that the televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon (for the first time in history), were ultimately the deciding factor. Richard Nixon did not come off well on TV, as we are shown with snippets from the debates. With only three networks in existence at the time, there was no spin. What you see is what you get, in stark black and white.

When Kennedy was shot, Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president and was the obvious candidate for the Democratic Party in 1964. Nixon bowed out of this race with his famous line, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The Republican race came down to a choice between the self-described liberal John D. Rockefeller, and the reactionary Barry Goldwater. With help from staunch conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, Goldwater went up against LBJ that year. Frankly, Goldwater scared the crap out of middle America, and Johnson won handily.

Although Johnson’s Great Society agenda was the most sweeping liberal set of reforms enacted since Roosevelt’s New Deal, he will always be remembered as the President most responsible for the quagmire of the Vietnam War. To be fair, he inherited the mess from Kennedy. But his dramatic troop build-up in the years 1964-1968 deeply divided the nation. While he was the de facto Democratic nominee in 1968, he stunned the nation with these words, “I will not seek, nor will I accept the nomination for President.”

1968 proved to be the most violent Presidential race in American history. With Johnson out, the Democratic ticket was a free for all, with sitting VP Hubert Humphrey eventually emerging as the candidate. The Chicago convention that year was a bloody battle between protesting students and Mayor Daly’s police. The images shown on TV were brutal, as if the whole country were coming apart at the seams. Nixon’s strategy was brilliant. The Republicans had met earlier in Miami, and their convention was the epitome of good, old-fashioned photo ops. While the Democrats were tearing each other apart, Nixon went on vacation, and allowed them to dig their own graves. Even though Humphrey belatedly announced his desire to end the war, the damage was done. Nixon easily won, commencing yet another chapter in history.

The first two shows of the series were all in black and white, but the 1968 program is in color. In addition to these powerful documentaries, each DVD offers some bonus material. The first is A Thousand Days: A Tribute to John F. Kennedy, which was first shown at the 1964 Democratic Convention. There is also an intriguing piece titled The March of Time: Seven Days in the Life of the President, which concerns LBJ.

Although I consider myself a bit of a history buff anyway, I found these three programs to be especially noteworthy. There is nothing quite like the authenticity of a documentary produced right at the time of the event, and all three Making of the President specials are exactly that. This is another great addition to the Athena library.

By Greg Barbrick

About the author

Greg Barbrick has been watching TV so long he remembers watching first run episodes of Star Trek.

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1 Comment
On: Monday, July 11, 2011
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

Great stuff, Greg. I'm a history buff as well and via TV geekdom my interest in the '60s has been reignited by (unhealthy) Mad Men marathons !

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