While the Covid-19 crisis has left millions of Americans with extra time to watch television, most TV isn’t worth our time. Too often it has become a predicable stew of violence, coarse language, general mayhem, and transgressive narratives. It is mostly the kind of waste land we were warned about more than 50 years ago in a famous speech. There are wonderful and welcome exceptions to the rule, few though they are.
But three upcoming programs on PBS are well worth our investment of time as we step off into this new month of May, and one of the three is among the best things that will air on all of American television this year.
On Monday, May 18, PBS will air at 9 p.m. EST a new documentary on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who is now in his 28th year on the high bench, having been nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words
“Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” is one of the most affecting, powerful shows you will ever see on a sitting member of that still, mostly inscrutable court. Instead of a stock narrator in the Walter Cronkite-style telling someone else’s story, the entire Thomas two-hour program is solely narrated by the Justice himself, simply telling his own story in his own winsome, inimitable style — all the while accompanied by a series of pictures, images, film, and former news reports helping to swiftly guide the narrative along.
Produced by filmmaker Michael Pack, who has a brilliant track record of other powerful documentaries and movies worth watching, the Thomas show seamlessly takes the viewer into a kind of rare and privileged conversation. It tells Thomas’ powerful and heartrending story from Georgia poverty, to the College of the Holy Cross, to Yale Law School, to corporate America, to the United States Senate, to working in the Reagan-Bush administration, to a nomination on one of the nation’s most powerful appellate courts, to the combustible and combative Supreme Court nomination, and finally, to the high court itself.
And all the while, both the joys and sadnesses of Thomas’ life are dealt with forthrightly by both Thomas and, in a few and appropriate instances, by his loving wife Ginni. The chemistry is revelatory.
The sheer emotion of the program – replete with heart-rending hairpin curves, massive ups and downs of brutal and unfair allegations, and finally God’s peace — makes for two of the most riveting hours you are likely ever to watch on TV. Weaved almost seamlessly into the exploration of Thomas’ life are witty and humorous observations about unparalleled victories and defeats; happiness and heartbreak; and an unyielding, humble faith that comes to define the greatness of both Thomas as a person and the substantial and lasting legacy his decisions have left on the court. Thomas is now in his 70s.
The central role of Thomas’ maternal grandfather in shaping the contours of the future Justice’s life is monumental, and this documentary is worth watching if only for a better understanding of the way in which one grandfather can so powerfully influence the life of a grandson. It will leave most viewers with moist eyes.
While the Thomas documentary is mid-month, the other two recommended programs begin airing tonight and continue tomorrow evening, also on PBS and also beginning at 9 pm EST. The wonderful program “American Experience” will feature a two-night, deep-dive look at the George W. Bush administration of which I was honored to serve for nearly eight years.
While there have been some important histories of aspects of the Bush presidency written already, there have been no documentaries like this “American Experience” one. It is essentially a two-part film-biography of the 43rd President of the United States, George Walker Bush, and it provides an excellent foundation of those two administrations.
One of the best things about the “American Experience” presidential series of programs is the careful, concise manner in which it weaves the use of knowledgeable journalists, historians, public intellectuals, and former senior staff members into its final tapestry. It is redolent of some of the finest documentary-making in television history, and worthy of the Ken Burns-style.
In this particular Bush series of programs, both of the president’s former chiefs of staff Andy Card and Josh Bolten have prominent roles, and both are eager to share their birds’ eye views of how many crucial foreign and domestic decisions were not only made but also executed in real time.
It was, for instance, Card who was with Bush that infamous day in Florida which we have come to know as 9-11; it was Card who whispered into the president’s ear that the World Trade Center in New York had been hit – sharing this with the president diplomatically while Bush was seated in the front of a classroom of students in Florida. It is a quicksilver, dynamic part of the two night series.
There are many other first-person insights and suitcases full of memories that reveal themselves with clarity and precision, giving viewers a truly compelling two nights of viewing — even as the individual parts add up to a consequential presidency that sometimes seems to get lost in the bookends of the Obama and Trump years.
Part one, airing tonight, reviews Bush’s road to the White House — ultimately winning the highly-contested and downright brutal contest against former Vice President Albert Gore in November, 2000. It was common then for pundits Left and Right to suggest the campaign and election was one of the most brutal in presidential campaign history. Yet no one could have foreseen the far more consequential, horrific events of 9-11 just over the horizon.
The manner in which the series handles the terrorist attacks, and the president’s ensuing leadership style and tone during that time, is well done indeed.
Part two fleshes out how the Bush foreign and security policies played out in real time, both in the Middle East and in Washington, and on the cusp are the duel calamities of Hurricane Katrina and the most consequential financial meltdown in American history since the Great Depression, now known as the Great Recession.
All of the “American Experience” presidential programs are worth viewing, especially during the Corona-19 era when we seem to have more time to watch such quality, content-rich shows. “George W. Bush: American Experience” and “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” are worthy of our time because of the history and culture they bring into our homes, and because they remind us that there remain large-souled people of faith in public service.