Skip to main content

Men of the White House: Presidential Profiles Highlight 'American Experience's 20th Year

By Shelley Gabert

As American Experience celebrates its 20th Anniversary, one of the greatest legacies of the compelling, multiple-award-winning history series has been its comprehensive profiles of American presidents. So it seems fitting that this major milestone arrives during one of the most exciting and decisive presidential elections in many decades.

To mark the occasion, American Experience, a production of WGBH Boston, launched The Presidents in May with a new two-part biography of President George H.W. Bush from Emmy Award-winning producer Austin Hoyt. In total, the programming block includes seven presidential biographies, 25 hours of programming that will be available online (, in downloadable vodcasts and on broadcast television through October. Profiles of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman aired in May, with future airings, including Reagan (September 22 and 29), Jimmy Carter (October 6), Nixon (October 13) and LBJ (October 20 and 27).

"These seven presidential biographies serve as an arc of the modern presidency and offer a grounding or understanding of where we've been as a nation to how we got to where we are today," says executive producer Mark Samels. "They clearly show how the problems that seem so intractable such as war, religion and healthcare that are facing us now have been dealt with in the past."

Samels, a founding member of the IDA and an independent documentary filmmaker and television producer, joined American Experience in 1997 as a senior producer and was named the third executive producer in the series' history in 2003. A year later, he formed WGBH's History Unit, supervising its first production, They Made America, and also directed and co-wrote American Experience's A Brilliant Madness, a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash.

"The anthology series expands our understanding of America by looking at our past, and lets history be our teacher or guide through a strong emphasis on story and narrative that adds another piece of the puzzle that is American," Samels explains. "We have literally taken these older profiles off the shelf and they haven't had to be modified at all."

Samels points to LBJ, the two-part documentary on Lyndon Baines Johnson, as offering one of the best stories. "He was a Goliath of a political personality during a turbulent time. He inherits the mantle of the presidency and a very complicated and controversial war in Vietnam. But he made these sweeping domestic changes, including civil rights, that will become his stamp on history. He was a consummate politician and could work legislation and Congress like no one has since."

David Grubin, a producer, director, writer and cinematographer, has been responsible for many of American Experience's presidential documentaries, including LBJ and two others in The Presidents series: Truman and FDR. He also made TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt, RFK and Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided for American Experience. "LBJ was the first four-hour film I'd ever done and American Experience was one of the first types of series where these history films were really being invented," he notes. "Back then, there was nothing like it on the air, and LBJ definitely set the style for many of the later films."

At that time, he worked with the late Judy Crichton, the first woman to produce network news and the first executive producer of American Experience, who died last year. "She let the subject be our guide and we had the freedom to really explore the material and make the best film," he recalls.

LBJ premiered in 1991 and Grubin remembers screening the film for Crichton and Peter McGee, the vice president of national programming for PBS. "They weren't used to having music on these films, but music is at the heart of this kind of filmmaking," says Grubin. "I'd worked with Michael Bacon, this great composer, on the film. They were afraid that the music would heighten the emotion in a way that would interfere with objective reporting, but for me, music was another powerful storytelling tool--so we never thought not to use it."
One of the strengths of the series is the ability of the filmmakers to capture the struggle between the private person and the public icon. "They're very open to different styles," Grubin explains. "I let the punishment fit the crime, or the style fit the subject, in an effort to get beyond the myth, to show how their private personality projects into the public arena.

"Story is the key," he continues. "And not getting bogged down in knowing every fact but in being able to let your imagination work with the material. The film is defined more by what you leave out than what you put in."
In FDR, there was no way Grubin could possibly cover all that happened with the New Deal, but instead he found ways to find emblems, metaphors and insights into FDR's character. Sometimes, he had a wealth of footage to work with-almost too much for the LBJ project, since the Johnson Administration employed a cameraman in the Oval Office who made a movie almost every week. There were other subjects for which there was much less material. Either way, Grubin's process is the same. "Everyone has his own method, but I write a script as if it were a movie," he notes. "Before I've even done my picture research, I imagine what the people are going to say and I pretend I'm going to get this footage. This script becomes my road map and helps me have a sense of structure throughout the editing, so I'm seeing almost like a painter, very close."

For example, when he wrote LBJ, the script began with the newly elected president giving his inaugural address. Then photos started coming in from the researcher, and one of LBJ dancing with his wife Lady Bird at the inaugural gala caught his eye. "As soon as I saw that footage I knew this was the beginning of the film."
At the start of the project, Grubin admits he didn't like LBJ, but throughout the research into his childhood, which ended up being a small portion of the film, he found what shaped him into both the man and the president. "Eventually you begin to have empathy for the subject," he admits. "FDR was different before he learned he had polio-he was more of a lightweight-while Teddy Roosevelt went through a horrible depression and headed for the Badlands of North Dakota after losing his mother and his wife within days or hours of each other. Lincoln, too, went into a deep depression after losing his son, but the reason we love Lincoln is because he was so human. It's always about looking for the humanity and turning points in their lives, and not just their great achievements."

"It's a very small group of filmmakers who make our presidential biographies," says Samels. "And David is peerless when it comes to psychological curiosity; he really tries to understand how the world looks from the subjects' point of view."

Currently, Grubin is working on a film about Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist and professor considered the inventor of the atomic bomb. His supposedly radical politics prompted the government to revoke his security clearance during a public hearing in 1954. With no footage of the security hearings, Grubin re-created the hearings, using actors, from hundreds of pages of transcripts.

As American Experience has evolved, Samels has found the use of dramatic re-enactments in history films to be problematic. "They have their value in opening areas of historical territory that can be done easily without them--information outside of archival history--but they're very hard to get right. In Grubin's film on the Lincolns, you didn't see people, but a hand with an axe splitting a rail. And David has found a way to do it in the Oppenheimer film.

"From the beginning, the original impulse for the series hasn't changed a great deal," Samels continues. "We really introduced and developed the classical historical documentary format and language that's also been worked on by Ken Burns and other filmmakers. We've also made a conscious effort in recent years to adapt our film style to make it more filmic, as some of our films have played theatrically, like Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), Daughter from Danang (2002) and Two Days in October (2005), which recently won the 14th George Foster Peabody Award for the series, which has also won 24 Emmy Awards."

Samels describes their approach as "filmmaker-friendly, and very involved in the pre-production work, refining the scripts." Going forward, Samels and his team are in the midst of making one of their most ambitious miniseries, We Shall Remain, which will premiere in April 2009. "It's a completely fresh view of Native American history that spans over four centuries and includes five compelling and thought-provoking stories," says Samels.

"With the decline of print--and newspapers in particular--documentaries are making a contribution to keeping people better informed, and at American Experience, our standards are high," Samels maintains. "I've learned since coming here that history is engaging when you make it about experience and you see individual choices, chance, serendipity and how the future is always rushing in an uncertain way through the present. Once you go back and do that, whether it's D-Day or the Civil War or a presidency, you bring it to life."


Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering entertainment, travel and culture.