While there is certainly much potential for television, the fact is that the medium often is found wanting. But tonight there is the first part of an ongoing series that proves TV can be exciting, informative, imaginative, and powerful. If only it were this way all the time. And if you are like me with plans this evening, make sure you set the VCR to record it. Because starting tonight, and running through November, C-SPAN offers a reason to watch TV.
As the Politico reported this week.
In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt felt he’d been misquoted by the press, so he did a little surveillance of his own: He had a lamp with a small microphone inside installed in the Oval Office to tape his many sessions with reporters. The only problem? He often left the mic on after his press conferences, inadvertently creating a trove of recordings — never before heard by the public — that reveals the 32nd president speaking openly about whether to enter World War II and offering his uncensored views of the Japanese and the Germans.
Those, along with rare recordings and film footage of 11 other presidents from Herbert Hoover through Bill Clinton, are the grist of a 12-part series, “Presidential Libraries: History Uncovered,” that debuts on C-SPAN this Friday and runs through November. C-SPAN and the National Archives collaborated to produce the series, which also will feature Lyndon B. Johnson speaking candidly about the Vietnam War and Harry Truman discussing the use of the atom bomb during World War II. “We have Truman on TV saying things that will raise people’s eyebrows — talking about civil rights, World War II and dropping the atomic bombs,” said C-SPAN Executive Producer Mark Farkas, who oversaw the series. The Truman recordings, made from 1960 to 1963, sat untouched in his presidential library archives for 40 years, Farkas said.
Also on tap: home movies by Lady Bird Johnson — apparently an amateur filmmaker — who shot and narrated scenes of the family from the time LBJ first ran for his Senate seat through their days in the White House.
Each week, the series will feature two hours of audio recordings, film footage, interviews and viewer call-in segments presented live and on location from each of the 12 presidential libraries, said C-SPAN spokeswoman Peggy Keegan. The series begins at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, and ends at the William Jefferson Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark.
Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and former director of four National Archives presidential libraries, will narrate the programs, analyzing common themes and discussing the relationships the presidents had with one another.
The series is timely, Farkas said, coming out in the months before the 2008 presidential election season officially opens with early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other states.
Among those making cameo appearances in the shows will be conservative commentator and former Republican presidential contender Pat Buchanan, who was a speechwriter and adviser to Richard Nixon and, later, communications director in the Ronald Reagan White House; and Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post, who was a neighbor and friend of President John F. Kennedy.
Farkas said the cable network and the National Archives strove to “take viewers beyond exhibit halls. … These programs are designed to take you into the [libraries’] stacks where the films and letters are found so you can get a sense of the presidents in their own words.” Each segment will provide viewers with video and audio clips, as well as photographs, documents and artifacts collected from inside the libraries’ vaults. By using a multimedia approach, the network and the Archives hope to illuminate behind-the-scenes events during the dozen administrations and provide the American public a chance to “get a sense of the presidents in their own words,” Farkas said. The joint project between the Archives and C-SPAN began a year ago and seemed a natural fit, Farkas said. “[The National Archives’] mission is to make archives accessible to the public, which is in tandem to C-SPAN’s mission to open up the political process and bring information to the public,” he said.
Although Farkas said he found each episode “fascinating,” he was most surprised by the film footage of Reagan. The 40th president was shadowed by television crews during much of his time in office — and he often forgot they were around.
“You literally see them being candid. In this TV age, it’s hard to imagine people being candid. They’re always looking for a sound bite,” Farkas said. On the C-SPAN website, viewers can see a preview of Reagan speaking about the press’s questions to him about the Russians while he was at the 1985 Geneva Summit.
For presidential junkies who want a personal invitation into the Oval Office, this series is your chance. It goes well beyond the rote facts most of us learned about these presidents in American history class and gives viewers a chance to see these powerful leaders speak candidly during some of their most vulnerable moments.