In focus

PBS’ ‘American Experience’ looks at presidents

The presidency of John F. Kennedy is detailed in an “American Experience” episode on PBS.
The presidency of John F. Kennedy is detailed in an “American Experience” episode on PBS.Ted Spiegel/CORBIS

The PBS series “American Experience” has been producing richly detailed and engrossing documentaries on US presidents for two decades. Starting on Monday night it will reprise six portraits of some of the more recent chief executives – John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush (poor Gerald Ford will have to be content with the Chevy Chase imitation). Timed to coincide with the 2016 presidential campaign, the documentaries offer a historical perspective on the election process and the challenges faced by the victor.

On the phone from his studio at WGBH, “American Experience” producer Mark Samels discussed what he hoped today’s voters – and candidates – might learn from these profiles.


Q. Why look back at past presidents?

A. First, looking back at key moments in history is always valuable. Looking at the times these presidents lived in, the issues, concerns, crises, and challenges they faced and seeing how they navigated through them — successfully or turbulently — is a reminder of human capacity and human failure.

It’s also a reminder that there are underlying, recurrent themes in American life that we have been dealing with for centuries: race, equality, economic struggles, our place in the world, education, the environment.

Q. Watching the JFK episode I was struck by how contemporary his campaign strategy was in 1960.

A. He was one of the presidents who ran the campaign when there had been a pivotal change in media. There are other such moments, such as when FDR mastered radio and epitomized its power with the fireside chat. And JFK arrived at the moment when TV was ubiquitous and had first entered the realm of politics. People were watching and forming opinions based on how a candidate composed himself in front of the television cameras. He was ideally suited for that.


Q. As was Ronald Reagan?

A. You have to give Ronald Reagan credit. He knew exactly how to speak in front of a camera and how to be heard by the American people. People felt he was speaking directly to them. Especially compared to LBJ, who was a behind-the-scenes guy who really knew how to work Congress and get things passed but oftentimes struggled with his TV appearances.

Media is part of being president, especially those moments of crisis when he has to appear in the Oval Office and address the nation. Different presidents have handled this with different degrees of success and it’s part of their legacy.

Q. I remember the press being more reserved in the past whereas now they thrive on conflict. What effect has this had on elections?

A. What has changed is the ubiquity of media, especially social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Everything feels more intense, more immediate. We feel more besieged by bad news.

But in recent memory we have seen much more difficult times. The presidents in the 1960s dealt with a nation that was literally on fire. In some ways looking back is a corrective to our sense that things are spiraling out of control, that we’ve never had it so hard.

The “American Experience” series “The Presidents” will air on Ch. 2 on Aug. 8-18.


Interview was condensed and edited.Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.