You can celebrate Presidents’ Day by visiting PBS for a full and free viewing of many of the American Experience presidential series documentaries that includes Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Dwight D. Eisenhower, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. I’ve seen them all numerous times, and what stands out for me about each (beyond the overwhelming quality) is how each president seems very unlike how we’ve come to remember them, and how each is much more complicated than a political designation may suggest.
For example, conservatives will argue about the do-nothing, weak liberalism of JFK, and yet he was a staunch believer in having a prepared military force, a policy he adopted after writing his Harvard thesis (later published as “While England Slept”) examining the failures of the British government to take steps to prevent World War II. As we all have come to know, he bungled through the Bay of Pigs early in his presidency and increased the number of Americans in Vietnam, but he also pushed through the Cold War locked in a battle with the Soviet Union for space, Berlin, ultimately locking horns and avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. TR was a Republican who often acted like we view a modern Democratic — busting trusts, regulating Wall Street, pushing for environmental conservation (his clear legacy can be seen in the existence of our National Parks), and even ended a coal strike that led to higher pay for less hours for union workers. Carter, who is often remembered for being over his head and as an example of flimsy progressiveness, actually entered office wanting to cut back government programs (the way Reagan is falsely remembered) but ran into problems with his own party, who couldn’t see eye-to-eye with him.
Reagan, who many conservatives view as the godhead of the current Republican party, never even presented one balanced budget. He preached family values, but largely remained a distant enigma to his children. On the other hand, he stayed deeply devoted to his second wife Nancy, and was known to enjoy a good joke. The so-called “meek” Bush Sr. may have been one of the most brutal campaigners in modern U.S. history, making an often unfair mockery of then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis on his way to the presidency. But you’ll also find a devoted family man. Then there’s Nixon, who was both brilliant, politically speaking, but paranoid and twisted enough to turn the Constitution on its head.
However, the diamond of a rather strong bunch of documentaries is director David Grubin’s “LBJ”, which showcases a man at his best and worst — a complex president who championed civil rights but still might use the “N-word” in office. He was a man whose Great Society plans caved under the weight of Vietnam and a Kennedy legacy that grew more into the mythological Camelot by the day. He was also a man who could find it in his heart to try to help the poor, but could also lie about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and even suggest denying Robert Kennedy a burial spot next to his brother at Arlington. It’s a series with nuances in each documentary, and a rich place to begin if you’re interested in learning about the extraordinary but flawed men who’ve led the United States.