Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 3, 2000Volume 28, Number 23

Stephen Skowronek

Professor brings presidential
expertise to PBS series

Even as Americans are contemplating with increasing interest this year's race for the presidency, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is presenting a series on the history of the individuals who have won and served in the American presidency.

Stephen Skowronek, the Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Sciences at Yale and a leading expert on the American presidency, served as the chief academic consultant for the 10-part series, which will air Sunday-Thursday, April 9-13.

The series, which profiles all 41 presidents, is arranged in thematic, rather than chronological, order. This allows each chief executive to be viewed from an unusual perspective, explains Skowronek.

For example, the first U.S. president, George Washington, is featured in the second segment, "The Heroic Posture," along with William Henry Harrison, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. On the other hand, the current president, Bill Clinton, appears with James Madison, James Polk and William Taft under the rubric "The Balance of Power."

Other categories include "The Professional Politician" (Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson), "The World Stage" (James Monroe, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson and George Bush) and "Happenstance" (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur and Harry Truman). While John Quincy Adams shows up in the "Family Ties" segment of the series -- along with Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy -- the elder presidential Adams shares "An Independent Cast of Mind" with Zachary Taylor, Rutherford Hayes and Jimmy Carter.

The narrator of the series is Hugh Sidey, the White House correspondent for Time magazine for four decades and a frequent panelist on political television programs. Each segment allows the president being considered to speak in his own voice, sometimes literally -- through television footage and taped interviews -- or through written documents. The latter will be read by such prominent public figures as James Carville (portraying Andrew Jackson), former Senator John Glenn (Rutherford Hayes) and Senator Paul Simon (Abraham Lincoln).

The Yale Bulletin & Calendar recently talked with Skowronek about the PBS series. A transcript follows:

How did this project come about?

Back in 1995 I got a call from Philip Kunhardt III asking if he could come up to Yale to meet with me about a new television mini-series on the American presidency. I knew the Kunhardt name from a wonderful book of Lincoln photographs based on the family's private collection and from a TV show they had done on the Kennedys. I later found out that they had also done a TV show about Lincoln based on the family photos.

The proposal Philip laid before me was for something far more ambitious than anything they had done before. They wanted to do a series that would encompass all the presidents. The idea was to base the presentation of each president's experience in the office on his own words or personal reflections. Living presidents would be interviewed on camera, but the rest would be presented through film or still pictures with the voices of men of affairs in our own day speaking the president's words.

Was grouping the presidents thematically your idea? Did the need to have at least one living or televised president in each group influence the choice of themes?

Philip came to me with a puzzle. They had to cover all the presidents in 10 one-hour episodes, and they wanted to use film in each episode. That meant they could not proceed with a standard chronology; they needed a mix of presidents from earlier and later periods in each show. I suppose they thought of me because my work on the presidency has pointed to the limitations of the standard chronologies and periodizations of the subject and suggested that the early presidents have far more to tell us about the operations of the office today than current approaches reveal. It was a perfect match.

How did you arrive at the themes used in the series?

The episodes had to be thematically coherent without being so narrowly focused as to slight the individuality, the character and personality, of each incumbent. Moreover, I had to think about themes that the presidents actually said something about "in their own words." The key was to use this technical challenge presented by the show to advantage by making a new kind of statement.

What I tried to do was to highlight an enduring aspect of the office of the presidency in each episode and to group presidents together according to that aspect, showing its different manifestations during their terms of office. This led to some unconventional juxtapositions, but I also think it gives the show a distinctive cast. The Kunhardts were great in allowing me to use the paragons of presidential history along with lesser lights to illustrate a theme. Abraham Lincoln is placed alongside Martin Van Buren and Lyndon Johnson in an episode called "The Professional Politician;" Franklin Roosevelt is placed alongside John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Harrison in an episode called "Family Ties." The point was not to diminish the "greats" or elevate mediocrity but to show the more familiar figures in a new light and to draw out a thematic element running through the history of the office with radically different personifications.

What were some of your responsibilities as academic consultant? Did you help develop and write the script?

Once I had 41 presidents grouped under 10 themes, I drafted a substantial statement about each theme and how each of the presidents might speak to it. This became the backbone of the series. I stayed involved in a variety of ways after that, but the Kundardts and their staff researched and wrote the scripts, and there were academic specialists involved in crafting the vignettes on each president. When I got the scripts, the main question was whether we were striking the right balance between thematic continuity and individual story telling. There was a lot of back and forth about that. And then there were particular problems that came up along the way.

I had put George Bush in the "Family Ties" episode, but curiously he had little to say about that in his interview. He ended up in the episode called "The World Stage" with John Kennedy going from the "World Stage" into "Family Ties." It worked, and the Kunhardt's were able to tag a photo of the Bush family onto the end of the "Family Ties" episode that makes the obvious point about the current presidential race. Then there was that awful moment last year when in the midst of the impeachment crisis I thought we might have to deal with a new president. Placing Gore in the mix would have thrown everything off! As it turned out Clinton's place in the episode on "The Balance of Power" is just right.

The final step in which I was involved was to view the rough-cut tapes of the episodes. All the elements were fixed by this time: the artwork, the music, the on-camera commentary by Richard Neustadt, the narration by Hugh Sidey, the famous voices speaking the presidents' words, and most especially the split-second timing. But there was still an ever-so-slight bit of play, which I was able to use to make a last pitch on behalf of the thematic coherence of the episodes. It has been very exciting to see the thing come together and the Kunhardts are to be congratulated for balancing all the very different elements into a show that is visually grand, substantively informative, and fun to watch. The companion book, "The American President," is absolutely stunning.

To your knowledge have there been other all-inclusive programs like this one?

The C-Span series currently airing has 41 episodes, one on each president. Its great, but very different from this. My hope is that the distinctiveness of the Kunhardt series will be noticed -- not only its fine production qualities but in its effort to reach beyond the stories about the presidents to say something fresh about the presidency.

-- By Dorie Baker


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