(Acorn Video / DRG)
As a dazed world tries to come to terms with what a President Trump might mean for the planet, it may be a comfort to know how underhand and manipulated many previous campaigns have been – where even Presidents with the better reputations either behaved nefariously or got someone to do it for them (yes, we’re looking at you, ‘Honest Abe’, among others).
We have seen some dirty tricks, deceit and scandals in this year’s presidential contest, but Race for the White House (originally a CNN docu-series, narrated by Kevin Spacey) shows that such lust for power is nothing new.
The disc comprises six 45-minute episodes, which start largely as docudramas, there being no footage from 1828, when Andrew Jackson fought John Quincy Adams, or in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln fought off Stephen Douglas. So the jump to Harry Truman’s 1948 contest with Thomas Dewey feels suddenly up-to-date, with far more archive material to work from.
Andrew Jackson’s contest was against the “elitist” incumbent, who beat him in the previous round, so this time it was personal – and how! The 1828 campaign was notable for its character slurs and bringing wives into the contest, as Jackson’s wife was almost certainly married when she tied the knot a second time.
The 1860 duel was also a re-run, this time of the candidates’ earlier battle to become the Illinois senator. The major issues here were slavery and the risk of the Southern states seceding.
100 years later and we see the historic sweating Nixon on the first TV debate. (Nixon was so sore about losing to Bobby Kennedy’s dirty tricks that he decided to try his own another time. Cue Watergate.)
It is other small details on TV that say more than the candidates can imagine, such as Bush looking at his watch during a debate. Thinking of the moment that “tanked” Michael Dukakis’s campaign against George Bush, Spacey notes, “It’s remarkable how events that happen in the course of a campaign can become the singular thing that the candidate is then identified by.”
Just to show how thing do not change over centuries, the series ends with the Clinton vs. Bush election, when marital affairs and issues of character again raised their head.
While the oldest contests may include some small factual errors, the newer episodes not only have backroom footage of campaign managers, but interview those same characters long after the events. This brings both an immediacy to the story they are telling and a time-cooled reflection on the events.
Race for the White House (which has previously unseen footage, but no extras) is a good way to do history. It reminds us of the elections we have lived through, shows us some timeless truths about the urge for power, and entertains us while teaching us. It may be another nation and other times, but it is a very watchable piece of TV.