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Making of the President: The 1960s, The (DVD Review)

4 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/5/11
$59.99 three-DVD set
Not rated.

If the three TV documentaries respectively spun off from Theodore H. White’s political bestsellers about the 1960, 1964 and 1968 elections didn’t fully achieve the same degree of landmark status on their own moving-image turf, they were still galvanizing at the time and (from that same get-go) permanently valuable. Which has, of course, made their general disappearance from sight for several decades a cause of regret. Produced by David Wolper, written or co-written by White and directed by Mel Stuart, they were jammed with privileged behind-the-scenes footage that has only become more “did-you-see-that?-ish” with the passage of time. John Wayne and Ronald Reagan in the presence of their deity at a Barry Goldwater (or Godwater) rally in 1964? Yes, it does bring back an era.

Of course, it’s the time capsule aspect that really makes this boxed set cook. This is because footage of on-the-stump politicians– eating rubber chicken at fundraisers or captured in their hotel rooms -- is no longer the novelty it once was. Back in the ‘60s, few regular voters had ever seen their elected officials (or wannabes) unguarded or in intimate situations. Today, of course, we’re jaded. Someone will accuse a candidate of having once come out in favor of qualified cannibalism during culinary emergencies, and the candidate will naturally deny it. Then within a day, somebody’s sharp staffer will have inevitably unearthed footage of the accused having indeed made the assertion — on some obscure 1999 cable show that ran on The Philately Network or close.

The first of Wolper’s three “Making-of” documentaries aired on ABC, the second two on CBS, and all took a long time to prepare before each one ran with limited commercial interruption under sponsorship of classy Xerox. In fact, the launching 1960 documentary wasn’t even completed until just before JFK’s death and ran on Dec 29, 1963, without any post-assassination editorial tinkering (which someone makes a point of mentioning here). Each chronicle had its core stories and subtext, as all elections do. In 1960, it was the JFK-vs.-LBJ battle to win the Democratic Primary (uh, amends were made) and Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon’s attempt to get out from under the shadow of President Dwight D. Eisenhower — also the first TV debates and Kennedy’s ultimate win in a squeaker. In 1964, it was the feud between President Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy polluting Democratic waters — plus the conservative seizure of the Republican Party by Goldwater when his more politically serene primary challenger (Nelson Rockefeller) had his recent sticky marriage to a divorcee with which to contend, which fired up the base in the wrong way.

For a year with everything (most of it ugly) try 1968: Johnson’s amazing fall from grace, thanks to Vietnam, after his ’64 landslide win; primary challenges by Eugene McCarthy and, later, Robert Kennedy, which spurred Johnson’s decision not to run; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy just two months apart; racial riots in major cities; the so-called “new Nixon’s” snooker of the country by positioning himself as a moderate; Chicago rioting during the Democratic Convention that selected Vice-President Hubert Humphrey as the candidate; and the third-party entrance into the race by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who then picked a veep running mate (Gen. Curtis LeMay), who sounded (or was portrayed as sounding) like something out of Dr. Strangelove.

Every political junkie can take something special out of each of these roughly 80-minute moving snapshots. For me, it’s the 1960 Democrats’ frigid Wisconsin primary with lots of bleak country road footage — raw material that looks as if it could have been borrowed from Robert Drew’s 1960 landmark documentary Primary (but, if so, there’s no credit). Or the amazing lead-up to the 1960 debate, where some control-booth technician with a sense of history kept the camera rolling for several minutes as Kennedy, Nixon, director Don Hewitt and the crew “mingled.” Or a shot of Jack L. Warner, who had a reputation of being to the Right of Emilio Fernandez’s despotic General Mapache in The Wild Bunch, at a Rockefeller (not Goldwater) rally. Or footage of Goldwater, when all was pretty well lost just before the ’64 election, flying into Phoenix at night to shake hands with voters who have come out to greet his plane. Or a sustained ’68 sequence (the single most powerful of the bunch) where McCarthy staffers and volunteers are just learning that Robert Kennedy has been shot — their anguish palpable over the fate of one who just a minute before had been an adversary.

Spicing up the package is a 14-page backgrounder booklet that even elucidates the elections’ respective party platforms — plus two bonus documentaries that include the JFK remembrance from the ’64 Democratic Convention (I remember it well) amid the kind of sustained ovation/pandemonium more identified with Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall album. The drawback of this set is print quality: the versions here bring back 16mm memories of the relatively worn instructional aides we used to see projected by some a.v. club member in high-school civics classes. This isn’t a terrible problem with the first two documentaries, which are in black and white. But the 1968 look-back is marred by color whose fading has not been corrected, and the skin tones of Nixon and Humphrey look something like the way my late father used to like his grilled steak (getting back to cannibalism).

Still never released on DVD is the Wolper-Stuart Four Days in November, which United Artists released to theaters in 1964, exactly one year after the JFK assassination. As excellent as these President documentaries are, November was the most brilliant of the bunch, and it would be wonderful if someone could spring it for a home release. Until then, it remains one of the top major studio offerings in limbo.

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