The Magazine

Brian Lamb's America

How C-SPAN stepped into the breach and became our national historian.

Nov 8, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 08 • By DAVID BROOKS
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This year C-SPAN is running a series called The American Presidents. The network dedicates a few hours of programming each week to describing the life and times of one of our nation's 41 chief executives, starting with George Washington last March and ending with Bill Clinton on Christmas Eve. Again, the approach is breathtakingly simple. C-SPAN sends two camera crews out to the president's home or some significant site associated with his life. The Washington segment was filmed at Mount Vernon. A William Henry Harrison segment was filmed at the battlefield at Tippecanoe in Indiana, where Harrison fought the Indians in 1811. There is a park ranger or local historian to give a tour of the site, usually with a few of those homey anecdotes that are the weakness of historic-home tour guides. There is a short documentary that describes the basic course of each president's life. That is often followed by an interview with a descendant of the president in question (George Cleveland played his grandfather Grover). With the more recent presidents, there is footage from important moments of their presidencies. Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address was broadcast during the week dedicated to his presidency. Finally a few historians are brought in to answer questions from the C-SPAN host and the C-SPAN callers. The callers are often self-taught history buffs -- someone will call in with a freakishly expert understanding of, say, the election of 1852 -- or else people with a personal connection to the president in question.

The programs on the obscure presidents tend to be better than the programs on the famous ones, simply because there is so much new to be learned about the Benjamin Harrisons of the world. The program on Zachary Taylor, for example, provided the usual nuggets. Far from being a child of poverty, as much of the literature about Taylor suggests, he was actually descended from Mayflower stock and had the same great-grandfather as James Madison. His predecessor, James Polk, gave up the presidency on a Saturday, but Taylor refused to take an oath on a Sunday, so there was a day in 1849 when America had no president. Taylor believed the president had the right to veto only bills he thought were unconstitutional, so great was the presumption of legislative branch superiority in his day. Taylor's daughter married Jefferson Davis. Though Taylor and Davis disagreed furiously about secession, the two men remained close friends even after her death. Taylor fought in the frustrating wars against the Seminoles in Georgia and Alabama. At one point he told the Seminoles that if they surrendered and left disputed territories, they could keep the black slaves who had escaped white slavemasters and fled to their camp. Either you find such bits of data interesting or you do not.

The guide through the life of Taylor was an elderly historian named Elbert Smith, who like many of the historians on the programs seems to exist in a world apart from the theoretical fashions of the day. The program gave us a little more than we need to know on the Wilmot Proviso, but it was fascinating when the coroner of Jefferson County, Kentucky, was brought on to describe the exhumation of Taylor's body. A historian named Clara Rising, who also appeared on the program, had come to the conclusion that Taylor was poisoned with arsenic. His body was dug up and his fingernails and bones examined, but no sign of arsenic poisoning was found.

The Web site for the series (americanpresidents.org) conveys the flavor of the programs, including private letters from each of the presidents. Here's a passage from an unlikely love letter written by normally stiff Woodrow Wilson to Edith Bolling Galt a few months before they were married:

My precious Darling,

The more we are together the more I love you, the more I need to have you always with me, and the more inadequate written words become to speak my heart to you -- the more impatient I grow of the pen, the more eager to whisper the love that floods my heart into my Darling's lips as I hold her close in my arms. And yet the more necessary does it become to relieve my heart with some message of love, even if it be only written. Please go to ride with us this evening, precious little girl, so that I can whisper something in your ear -- something of my happiness and love.