Television Biography: History Lite
by Nancy C. Unger on Jan 17, 2002
Recently, PBS premiered a documentary biography about Woodrow Wilson that, for all its many positive qualities, was ultimately a disappointment. Like the vast majority of programs in the "American Experience" series, it was beautifully produced. Vivid photographs and footage were combined with informative and entertaining commentary by leading scholars. Unfortunately, the final product often gave us History Lite — history reduced to the personal.
"Biographies," said Mark Twain, himself a subject of a PBS documentary, "are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written." Maybe so. But the Wilson film's simplification of issues and ideas made even the clothes and buttons almost unrecognizable.
Reducing history to personality distorts events and their significance. The presidential election of 1912, for example, was not, as "American Experience" would have it, a personality contest between former president Theodore Roosevelt, baby-kisser and back slapper, and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, cool intellectual. It was instead a vital referendum on the ideas of profoundly thoughtful and intelligent men that would determine the course of the nation.
To present Wilson as little more than his prevailing character traits (scholarly, cerebral, yet passionate) is akin to presenting Abraham Lincoln as earthy, moody and brilliant, with the Civil War as a colorful background. It's like focusing on Osama bin Laden as a religious fanatic and barely mentioning global politics or the World Trade Center.
The Wilson who lived vitally within his times was a man worth learning about. But we didn't get to see enough of that Wilson, one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century history, in the PBS biography.
For example, contrary to "American Experience," Wilson did not almost single-handedly invent progressivism. Instead, that complex succession of reform efforts began at the turn of the twentieth century as a response to the evils of the newly industrialized and urbanized America.
A crowd of reformers had long sought to eliminate problems crying out for solutions, such as overcrowded tenements, impure food and drugs, unsafe working conditions and corrupt political machines in the nation's teeming cities. Wilson himself graciously acknowledged that many of his progressive proposals were inspired by others.
In fact, in a show of bipartisanship that was rare even then, Wilson, a Democrat, recognized publicly the dedication of a Republican reformer, Robert M. La Follette. The Wisconsin senator fought many years in the progressive trenches for such things as more equitable taxation and ballot reforms, including direct elections. Wilson regretted that he had not converted to progressivism earlier, stating, "There was no credit to come in when I came in. The whole nation had awakened."
Yet on "American Experience," even Theodore Roosevelt, far earlier on the reform scene than Wilson and arguably the single most influential progressive leader, received little credit. He was described as a middle-of-the-road reformer important principally for his hatred of Wilson.
Like all serious efforts to transform society, Wilson's attempts to eliminate special privilege, whether from the dining halls of Princeton or the boardrooms of American business, did not emerge from a vacuum. They represented a thoughtful evaluation of the ideas of many men and women. Yet in the televised version of Wilson's life, the differences between the two progressive candidates in the 1912 campaign were essentially reduced to personality traits. Their divergent political and social visions were not addressed.
What were those differences? By 1912, Roosevelt was delineating his New Nationalism. He called for aggressive government action, including tax, labor, and campaign reform. Wilson countered with the New Freedom, asserting that the federal government's task was to "sweep away special privileges and artificial barriers to the development of individual energies, and to preserve and restore competition in business," nothing more.
Wilson considered direct federal involvement (for example, giving special protection to workers or farmers) paternalistic and detrimental to free enterprise and open competition. He staunchly opposed the kind of interventionist government that Roosevelt was proposing. The differences between Roosevelt and Wilson over the proper role of government were so profound that they continue to resonate in today's partisan arguments.
So why such one-dimensional coverage by "American Experience?" Too many historians who have served as talking heads on documentaries lament that their efforts to provide context and analysis end up on the cutting room floor, leaving only a television writer's conception of a dramatic narrative thread.
Does choosing to detail the personal at the expense of the political really matter? Without question, and not just to historians. To present historical figures as essentially the sum total of their personality traits, yet responsible for entire movements or events is contrary to reality. It creates false expectations concerning current and future leaders.
Just as in Wilson's day, major figures today, such as George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharref, are complex figures responding not only to private, but to local, national and global influences.
The "American Experience" series is immensely popular. Because television can be a powerful tool in presenting the valuable lessons of the past, and the present, to the public, it's all the more important that it gets its history right.
Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. She is author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).