CNN’s “Race for the White House” is certainly well timed, not only to cash in on a presidential primary process filled with twists and turns, but by leveraging producer-narrator Kevin Spacey’s association with the fictional version of that quest in Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Yet despite plenty of fascinating historical tidbits, this six-part look at memorable campaigns of the past is a bit too slick in its style at the occasional expense of substance, making somewhat distracting use of dramatic recreations, even when covering, say, Kennedy v. Nixon, a race with no shortage of compelling video evidence.
To be fair, the producers do cover a lot of ground within each hour, and incorporate facts – through interviews with analysts and historians – that even some buffs might not know or have forgotten, like Richard Nixon’s misguided pledge to visit all 50 states, which offered relatively scant rewards given how all that travel tired him out and drained his campaign.
Still, when it’s pointed out that Nixon had banged his knee on a car in advance of his debate with John Kennedy – one of the myriad reasons he looked washed out and haggard to those watching on TV – do we really need to see the moment reenacted, with an actor and a vintage vehicle?
Even during the second installment, “Lincoln v. Douglas,” those kind of flourishes feel both intrusive and a trifle unnecessary, although there is one nifty element, using a split screen to juxtapose photos of the actual events with the reenactments, although the faded palettes still come across as a trifle cheesy. And so, for that matter, does the narration by Spacey, which one could forgivably confuse with the delivery of his “Cards” alter ego, President Francis Underwood.
Perhaps foremost, “Race for the White House” reminds us that American politics has always been a rough-and-tumble affair, from the voting irregularities in Chicago that boosted Kennedy to the dirty tricks employed by Honest Abe’s campaign at the convention, where his surrogates bribed the head of the Pennsylvania delegation with a promised appointment. At the same time, there are also more ennobling aspects, such as Stephen Douglas damaging his chances by putting principle ahead of politics and defending the union.
Beyond the two hours previewed, subsequent installments will be devoted to Bush v. Dukakis, Truman v. Dewey, Jackson v. Adams, and Clinton v. Bush.Of course, one can be sympathetic to the desire to make history a bit more urgent and appealing for those weaned on reality TV, and the good in “Race for the White House” mostly outweighs the pet peeves. In that regard, enjoying the program generally requires a quality that, politically speaking, is in relatively short supply today – namely, compromise.