With the 2012 presidential cycle heating up, I took a break over the holiday weekend to watch "The Making of the President: The 1960s," a set of three documentaries based on the classic Theodore H. White books that are being re-released today by Acorn Media Group. These contemporaneous films cover the 1960, '64 and '68 races at a depth and level of detail that surprised me and will no doubt excite political junkies. Among the films' many cool features: the informal access to the candidates, which puts the viewer in JFK's hotel suite on election night; on the stage before the first Kennedy-Nixon debate as the candidates make awkward small talk with the men in the press (they're all men); and in Barry Goldwater's hotel suite as he "relaxes with his hobby" of chatting up random ham radio operators across the country--sort of pre-Twitter social networking with one's constituents, I suppose, though minus the naughty pictures. All of it is described in the booming stentorian '60s voiceovers that were standard back then and imbue White's purple prose with maximum drama (e.g. Lyndon Johnson gazing poignantly across the South Lawn after Kennedy's assasination: "The crushing power of the presidency is his alone to guide.")
While they obviously cover important moments in American history, these are really campaign films. There's a kind of Game Change-style love of process running throughout all of them, which I loved mentally comparing with what we've got today. The degree of press access and horse-race technology are, of course, quaint and archaic--the election-night electoral vote tallies on the network resemble the scoreboard at Fenway Park. But there was more that was familiar about these races than I expected. The vitriol of the attacks--Nixon shouting on the trail in 1960 that Kennedy "shows an ignorance economically which disqualfies him from even being considered for the presidency of the United States!" The anxiety about race--not so much as a national issue, which wasn't surprising, but a specifically political one, such as the debate in 1960 about whether there needed to be a "negro" in the Cabinet. And also the fixation on morals, especially the scandalous (at the time) marriage between divorcees Nelson Rockefeller and Margaret Murphy, which White overdramatizes thusly: "To men and women of dogmatic morality, this appears the manner of Manhattan-Babylon of the East."
All in all, these are fascinating films and I wish someone (PBS?) would re-air them so they'd get a wider audience. In the meantime, you can buy the set for $60.
Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.