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"Founding Fathers" makes for timely TV fare

Sunday, November 26, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The History Channel couldn't have planned it better.

After experiencing a history-making election this month, the timing of "Founding Fathers" is more than fortuitous.


"Founding Fathers"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow through Thursday on The History Channel.

Host: Roger Mudd.

Narrator: Edward Herrmann.


"No one ever said democracy was a speedy, efficient process," said historian Carol Berkin in an interview a week following the presidential election as votes in Florida were still being recounted.

Berkin, a professor at City University of New York and author of several books about historical figures, was one of several historians interviewed for "Founding Fathers," a four-part documentary series. She thinks America's earliest leaders would not be as surprised as many Americans were by the election deadlock on Nov. 7.

"One of the things this show does is show you the creation of the country was unprecedented," Berkin said. "Nobody knew until the last minute they'd vote for independence. That sense of contingency is true to the drama of the show."

Berkin said America's first statesmen would be surprised America still exists.

"A government based on representation of the people was the most fragile form of government because they often fall victim to mobocracy from the bottom and tyranny from the top," Berkin said. "Knowing what I know about their sense that this kind of government is subject to so much violence from both directions, they would be thrilled to see this.

"They're calling [the Florida recount] a 'constitutional crisis,' but no one's overtaken Washington with military force. Bush and Gore aren't mounting armies to see who can kill the other," she said. "[The founding fathers] would be thrilled at this because they were all lawyers and they really did believe that the rule of law was the highest mark for civilization."

Unlike the PBS program "Liberty," History Channel's "Founding Fathers" is more about the men involved in the creation of America than the events themselves. She welcomes the appellation "historical psychologists."

"What we're trying to do is give an in-depth, all-the-warts-showing look at the men, and in this case they really are all men, who were the primary actors in the creation of both the country and its independence," Berkin said.

Producers asked the historians to look at the biographies, childhoods, lives and relationships of George Washington (voiced in "Founding Fathers" by Brian Dennehy), John Adams (James Woods), Thomas Jefferson (Peter Coyote) and Benjamin Franklin (Hal Holbrooke), among others.

"In most peoples' minds [the founding fathers] are carved in stone with pigeons standing on their heads," she said. "There was a strong desire on the part of the people who did this show to make these people flesh and blood."

Berkin said "Founding Fathers" includes discussion of George Washington's romance with his best friend's wife, Alexander Hamilton's decision to bring a buxom blonde to the constitutional convention and the instability of John Adams.

"In another era, John Adams would have needed Prozac," Berkin says in the program.

Berkin said "Founding Fathers" isn't intended to trash the historical figures but to make them more real and less like Supermen.

"If Superman stops a meteor from landing on Earth, we don't say, 'How amazing!' But normal people with anxieties and problems and strengths and weaknesses that are human, it's remarkable they did what they did," she said.

To create portraits of men who lived hundreds of years ago might seem a daunting challenge, but Berkin said the founding fathers left volumes of personal correspondence, diaries and speeches that reveal their character.

"They were not shy," she said. "They were elite leaders of this society, so they were active in public affairs and left public documents. All of them also had a sense they might go down in the history books."

Some of their writings run to 40 volumes or more.

"If we were trying to write biographies of foot soldiers in the revolution, it would be difficult, but you could bury yourself in the correspondence of Ben Franklin and never come up for air," she said. Hamilton even kept correspondence with a prostitute he was seeing and her husband. "The husband kept blackmailing him for money. And she would write these wonderful letters, 'As I lie here in my bed thinking of you ...' She wasn't subtle."

Subtlety isn't a hallmark of some TV programs that pass as "historical fiction" (think: "North and South," "George Washington," etc.). Berkin objects to many of those projects in one specific way: They portray people in the past as being just like us, but wearing different clothes.

"That is so profoundly not the case," Berkin said. "I have to run into the kitchen and take aspirin when I see this. I'd rather watch 'Walker, Texas Ranger.' "

But she appreciates what television has done for the dissemination of history through documentaries like "Founding Fathers."

"This is a platform for historians we've never had before," she said. "I think when they do shows like 'Founding Fathers,' then television is at its public service best. So you take the bad with the good. [Broadcast network] TV wants to grab viewers at any cost and The History Channel wants to present history accurately, and the competition between them is inevitable in this laissez-faire world."

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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