CNN's "Race for the White House”: The campy history of cutthroat campaigns that 2016 deserves

Narrator Kevin Spacey lends a "House of Cards" flair for drama to this crash course in American presidential races

Published March 22, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

At least in part, the pleasures of CNN’s “Race for the White House,” a six-part series tracking some of the most acrimonious presidential match-ups in history, come from just how hilariously low-budget it is. It might not actually be low-budget, but it certainly feels that way. The miniseries’ heart and soul is in its sit-down interviews with academics, biographers, political advisers and, in some cases, the real-life candidates themselves. Political history buffs aren’t going to learn anything new from this miniseries. But for anyone wanting a beginner’s crash course of the unsightly ways elections have been won in American history, the CNN docuseries offers a good overview.

But in an understandable effort to keep things interesting, “Race for the White House” is punctuated with historical reenactment, from actors portraying Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential race to a stand-in for a younger George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election. In this era of very high-quality historical reenactment on television, it’s easy to spot how limited those scenes are, from the at-times jarring physical dissimilarities between actor and candidate to the slightly too on-the-nose reconstruction of theorized events.

And yet the reenactments are all so earnest, in their aims at education, that it is hard to not feel a kind of affection for them, too. In the first episode, “Nixon vs. JFK,” a morose Vice President Richard Nixon (Ralph Edward Macleod) roams the halls of the West Wing, peeking in a door to find a secretary watching John F. Kennedy on the television, apparently rapt. In the third, “Bush vs. Dukakis,” there's legendary Republican strategist Lee Atwater (Rob Cardno), watching the first Willie Horton attack ad with something like a revelation crossing his face. And in the second, Abraham Lincoln (Mark Etlinger) takes stage after stage to make his case against slavery, embodying none of the rhetorical passion that the man must have had, but certainly making the case for trying anyway.

Just to seal the slightly campy deal, however, “Race for the White House” is narrated by executive producer Kevin Spacey, in his very best “House of Cards” voice; a sardonic Southern twang sneaks into his voice, from time to time, as he does his best to infuse the twists and turns of each campaign with the drama. It’s more necessary for some junctures than others. The events of the 1860 Republican National Convention, for example, hardly need any embellishment whatsoever, as a handful of talking heads—including CNN anchor Jake Tapper and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich—relate the multiple rounds of conniving that ended with Lincoln’s nomination. But the following months, as Lincoln civilly discussed himself into the Oval Office, need all of Spacey’s insinuating vowels to make it seem slimy.

Spacey’s Frank Underwood-ing—and the promos for the miniseries—are invested in the idea that all politics is dirty, and though this is a cynical argument, it’s also a bit more complex than Spacey’s narration makes it out to be. With “Nixon vs. JFK,” the documentary advances the idea that Nixon was so devastated by Kennedy’s superior politicking and charisma that when he did become president, his scruples had seriously eroded; pundit Paul Begala and President Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe make the point, in “Lincoln vs. Douglas,” that all the chicanery in the world was worth electing the president who would free the slaves. Former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who is a commentator on his own episode, is depicted as losing the 1988 election precisely because he couldn’t bring himself to play the game of politics. That gave Atwater, and the rest of Bush’s campaign team, leeway to utterly crush him. Dukakis’ former campaign manager, Susan Estrich, comes across as a woman transformed by impotent fury, torn between knowing how to win the game and wanting to believe in a candidate who tried to be something better.

Estrich is also the only woman to get her own reenacting actor (Kari Schlamann), because she’s the only female political player of consequence in the three episodes that have already aired. (The fourth, “Truman vs. Dewey,” airs Sunday night.) Which is another dimension the docuseries offers, albeit indirectly: a portrait of how we got to here, one of the most perplexing and alienating presidential campaigns in history. Much of “Race for the White House” is taken up with white men meeting each other in private rooms; two of the episodes follow elections that take place before women had the right to vote. In “Nixon vs. JFK,” the assembled panelists discuss how important the African-American vote became to Kennedy’s campaign, despite the fact that up until then, the Republican Party had been the party for black voters.

The series is not airing its presidential elections in order, meaning that some historical trends get buried in decade-jumping. But if identity politics is a buried theme, the other, even more indirectly examined narrative of “Race for the White House” is media. Lincoln and Douglas were holding their debates during the first election cycle that could use railroads and telegraphs to publish them in big-city papers just 24 hours later; Nixon and Kennedy were the first televised candidates. And with the accelerating pace of news coverage, narratives were more quickly built and more easily deployed, as is portrayed, painfully, in the clever and layered attack ads directed at Dukakis in 1988.

What’s sad about all of these showcased tactics—particularly the more recent ones, in a national climate that looks more like ours—is that they worked. The American electorate proves to be particularly sensitive to certain demonstrations of power or ability, and in the annals of jockeying for public favor, very few winning candidates have held the moral high ground for long. But watching the stories of these campaigns unfold, largely by stepping through the scandals, brokered deals and gaffes of the time, it’s difficult not to wonder what story they’ll tell of our own presidential election. Our affinity for convenient narratives and obvious discomfort with certain kinds of people as commander in chief does not seem to have gone anywhere. There is, to be sure, something comforting and illuminating in seeing that political machinery and campaign tactics have been more or less the same throughout history—from Stephen Douglas shamelessly playing the race card against Lincoln in 1860 to the Kennedy campaign’s probably fraudulent victory in Chicago over Nixon. But it’s less comforting when we’re living through another one of these eras of obfuscation and rapacity; it would be nice to feel as if things were changing for the better.

By Sonia Saraiya

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