I’d really like to do a documentary on Jefferson Davis. Some of my readers complain when I mention him as a President, but he WAS an American President True, he was not a President of the United States, but as President of the Confederate States, he led the other half of the country during the Civil War, actually served as Commander-in -Chief for a few weeks longer than Abraham Lincoln, and played a very important role in American history that I feel is often overlooked outside of the former Confederacy.
Plus, Davis’s impact goes beyond his Presidency. He was a hero of the Mexican-American War and an influential member of Congress. Under President Pierce, Davis was arguably the greatest Secretary of War in American history — he was innovative, a top-notch organizer, and modernized the U.S. military. In fact, Davis was largely responsible for turning the U.S. military into a powerful, efficient force that overpowered Davis’s Confederate military a decade later. During his time in Pierce’s Cabinet, Davis played a major role in early planning of the Transcontinental Railroad, and oversaw the expansion and construction of the United States Capitol building. In fact, the Capitol as we see it today was mainly due to the work and support of Jefferson Davis.
On top of all that, Davis had a fascinating and tumultuous personal life. He barely made it through West Point without being kicked out. He eloped with the daughter of the military commander he served under on the frontier after West Point — a commander who just so happened to be future President Zachary Taylor. That marriage ended tragically just a few weeks after the wedding when the newlyweds contracted malaria. Taylor’s daughter (Davis’s new wife) died and Davis barely survived himself.
After several years of depression, Davis eventually remarried — to a granddaughter of a former New Jersey Governor — and their relationship lasted the rest of their lives, despite ups and downs. Davis’s second wife was not only First Lady of the Confederacy, but often filled in as White House hostess during the Pierce Administration because of the problems that President Pierce’s wife had.
At one point, Davis and his former father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, stumbled upon each other by chance on a riverboat and buried any hard feelings they might have had. Davis served bravely under Taylor in Mexico and advised Taylor once the General was elected President, despite being from different parties. Davis was at Taylor’s side when the President died in office in 1850. Davis’s friendship with Franklin Pierce was even more remarkable and even continued during (and after) the Civil War, leading many to consider Pierce a traitor to the Union.
There’s even more drama that could be covered. Like his Union counterpart, Lincoln, President Davis had a young son tragically die during the Civil War. When the war ended, Davis was captured and imprisoned under harsh conditions while Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, decided what to do with the former Confederate President. Eventually, prominent Northerners petitioned for Davis to be released, as did Pope Pius IX.
Davis ended up outliving most of the principals of the Civil War. He wrote a lengthy, two-volume history of the Confederacy and became a Southern icon — the symbol of the “Lost Cause”, and far more popular and respected in retirement among Southerners than he had been as President when his prickly personality and micromanaging style caused problems between him and his fellow Confederates.
When Davis died at the age of 81 in 1889, a massive funeral was held — the largest funeral in Southern history and one of the biggest in American history. Even today, Davis’s birthday is celebrated as a state holiday in several former states of the Confederacy.
Anything having to do with the former President of the Confederate States of America will be controversial, but Jefferson Davis is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in American history and, as I’ve tried to illustrate in this quick run-through of his life, he was also a fascinating personality. I think we’re way overdue for a PBS “American Experience” documentary on his life.
(So, if you’re listening, PBS and “American Experience”, consider this my pitch, okay? I should also note that “American Experience” is my favorite long-running television series by far! Also, I’m ready, willing, and able to write the Jefferson Davis episode for scale. Hell, I’ll do it for some chicken wings, a Pepsi, a few DVDs, and my name in the credits! Let’s make it happen.)
Not yet, but I will definitely be checking it out soon.
I’m also interested in seeing National Geographic’s Killing Kennedy. Several months ago, I mentioned how I had such low expectations for NatGeo’s Killing Lincoln that I wasn’t even all that motivated to watch it, but absolutely loved the film once I did see it. I’m trying to temper my expectations for Killing Kennedy, but Killing Lincoln was so surprisingly well-done that I can’t help but hope for another really entertaining program.
By the way, in an aside totally unrelated to these programs other than a similar title, I highly recommend checking out Al Jazeera’s investigative report Killing Arafat. Al Jazeera broadcast a documentary last year called What Killed Arafat? in which it attempted to uncover the truth behind Yasser Arafat’s 2004 death — a death which has become increasingly suspicious as Al Jazeera has tried to dig deeper into the story. Last week, the news organization released Killing Arafat, reporting that in-depth medical testing of remains exhumed from the grave of the former PLO leader resulted in undeniably lethal levels of polonium, a poison that does occur naturally, but not to the extent that it was found in the bones in Arafat’s tomb.
While most fingers unsurprisingly point towards Israel as the source of the polonium, both Al Jazeera documentaries suggest some type of complicity on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Whether it was a single, rogue operator in Arafat’s inner circle or several rival leaders of the Palestinians conspiring to make a change at top, the evidence suggests that Arafat was assassinated and the reaction of the Palestinian Authority towards Al Jazeera in both documentaries is very shady, in my opinion. Because Arafat had basically been under house arrest at his compound (surrounded by Israeli troops) in Ramallah during the Second Intifada, it had to be someone that he trusted who delivered the lethal dose of polonium that he likely ingested in his food. If that’s not where rival Palestinian leaders were complicit, they very well could have delayed his medical treatment and eventual medical evacuation to France or worked to cover up (and continue to cover up) the exact cause of Arafat’s death. Watching both of Al Jazeera’s investigative reports — What Killed Arafat? and Killing Arafat — it’s very clear to me that the Palestinian leader was assassinated and that it wasn’t Israel alone that was responsible. I suggest checking out both programs — Al Jazeera has them on their website and on YouTube — and deciding for yourself.
(Incidentally, Al Jazeera has several excellent investigative reports/documentaries available to watch for free on their website and/or YouTube. Another program that I’d suggest without hesitation is their investigation of the 1978 disappearance of moderate Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr who vanished during a trip to Libya after a meeting with Colonel Qaddafi.)
"The Chief of Staff’s job has more authority and more power than the Vice President." — Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford (1975-1977) and 46th Vice President of the United States (2001-2009)
"You’ve gotta be the son of a bitch who basically tells somebody what the President can’t tell them." — Leon Panetta, White House Chief of Staff for Bill Clinton (1994-1997)
"Your job really is to just catch the javelins that are intended for the old man." — James Baker, White House Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan (1981-1985) and George H.W. Bush (1992-1993)
I finally caught The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, the Discovery Channel’s incredible documentary detailing one of the most important jobs in the United States government and one of the most powerful positions in the world — the White House Chief of Staff. I don’t even know where to begin. The Presidents’ Gatekeepers is an absolute masterpiece. I think it is one of the best documentaries related to the Presidency that I have ever seen — and that includes the always-tremendous PBS American Experience biographies.
Because the White House Chief of Staff is not an elected official and Senate confirmation isn’t required for the Chief of Staff’s appointment, I think people can often overlook or underestimate the importance of the job and the influence of those who have held it. The Presidents’ Gatekeepers should change that perception as the documentary really goes behind-the-scenes to establish how crucial an effective Chief of Staff can be to a President’s Administration.
I recall watching The West Wing with someone when the series was still airing on NBC and my friend questioned why Leo McGarry, the fictional White House Chief of Staff, was so powerful. She thought the role was exaggerated because, at times, Leo came across almost as a co-President — always deferential to the President but never afraid to push the President to make a decision, manage the President’s time, or simply disagree with the Commander-in-Chief. But Leo would have been the ideal White House Chief of Staff and there have been real-life Chiefs of Staff just as influential and powerful as The West Wing's version.
As Dick Cheney noted at the beginning of the documentary (and quoted at the beginning of this post), the White House Chief of Staff truly is more powerful than the Vice President of the United States. Cheney is uniquely suited to make that observation as he is the only person in American history to serve in both positions — he was President Ford’s Chief of Staff in the 1970s and, of course, Vice President for eight years under President George W. Bush. The fact that Cheney — arguably the most powerful Vice President in American history — still believes that the Chief of Staff has more authority and influence than the VP really explains a lot.
The most remarkable aspect of The Presidents’ Gatekeepers is that the history of the Chief of Staff position is actually related throughout the documentary by the 20 former White House Chiefs of Staff who are still living today. Their knowledge of the position and their inside stories make The Presidents’ Gatekeepers an extraordinary film. Anyone interested in the Presidency in general and the inner-workings of the real-life West Wing in particular needs to check out this documentary. I don’t have enough adjectives in my arsenal to properly praise The Presidents’ Gatekeepers. Find it and watch it.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve watched PBS’s new, four-hour-long documentary of Bill Clinton twice in the past week. Because it was so good, it reminded how good the other PBS American Experience documentaries about Presidents are, so I started watching some of the other editions that I have on DVD, thanks to the awesome The Presidents Collection boxed set.
The Presidents Collection is a boxed set of feature-length documentaries on some of the most influential 20th Century Presidents from PBS’s American Experience. It contains 15 DVDs and over 35 hours of documentary goodness on Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, The Kennedys, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
I spent most of the evening watching the Woodrow Wilson documentary (2 discs/165 minutes long) and almost halfway into the 194-minute-long documentary on George H.W. Bush. I’ve watched these before, but I always forget how good they are. They are detailed and definitive, rich with historic video footage and photographs, and accompanied by commentary from our finest historians and historic figures. Even the reenactments aren’t cheesy like reenactments can so frequently be.
I highly recommend checking out The Presidents Collection, and the boxed set of 5 DVDs from the 2000 series, The American President, which features shorter documentaries on every single President up to Bill Clinton.
(By the way, do you know what is a really amazing piece of historic footage? The grainy video of the U.S. Navy submarine Finback pulling a 20-year-old George H.W. Bush from the Pacific Ocean a few hours after he was forced to parachute into the water from his crippled plane when it was shot down by the Japanese. It’s unbelievable that was caught on film. Oh, and that’s another reason why I include George H.W. Bush near the top of the list when people ask me which Presidents were badasses.)
I’m watching the entire new four-hour PBS American Experience DVD on Bill Clinton…again. I rarely watch something twice, and certainly not twice in the same week. If you haven’t seen the Clinton documentary, it’s a must-see — as all of PBS’s American Experience documentaries tend to be.
If you haven’t seen it, go order it right now.