How We Picked Our Presidents, 1960s Style






Few students of popular culture, amateur or professional, consider the 1960s a period when creativity flourished on American television. Westerns of the kind that did not threaten to obscure the legacy of John Ford prevailed, speaking to the pastoral fantasies of millions of Americans who had vacated decaying cities for the tempered pleasures of suburban life. The same demographic realities could be held accountable for the absurdist escapism of something like “Green Acres.” Between 1950 and 1960, the United States population swelled by about 28 million; two-thirds of that growth occurred in suburbia. Television had come to occupy a place in 44 million homes....

The new atmosphere created a great opportunity for independent producers, among them David L. Wolper, who brought American viewers enduring works like specials from the National Geographic Society and the series “Biography” (and later, the mini-series “Roots”). Beginning in 1963, he also delivered a trio of documentaries based on the classic texts of political reporting by the journalist Theodore H. White: “The Making of the President, 1960,” “The Making of the President, 1964” and “The Making of the President, 1968.” Wolper Productions distilled these exhaustively detailed books into 80-minute films, which have become available on DVD for the first time (from Athena, in a boxed set, “The Making of the President: The 1960s”).

The films capture the books’ broad scope, covering successive presidential campaigns — John F. Kennedy versus Richard M. Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson versus Barry M. Goldwater, and Nixon versus Hubert H. Humphrey and George C. Wallace — in a kind of minute-to-minute chronology from the primary battles through the general elections. The stories are told from the perspective of a shifting social landscape and through the lens of backroom factionalism that beset both major parties throughout the decade....



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