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The Jimmy Carter Library
Jimmy Carter

There has never been a bad "American Experience."

Since it debuted in 1988, this PBS documentary series has produced dozens of documentaries that range from good to great. And some of the best have been packaged in "The Presidents Collection," a 15-disc, 35-hour DVD collection that PBS Home Video and Paramount Home Entertainment are releasing just as the 2008 race for the White House heats up.

(It will be on shelves on Tuesday, with a suggested retail price of $129.99.)

The "Collection" includes profiles of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Reviewing them when they aired on PBS, I used words like "excellent," "enlightening," "entertaining," "stunningly impressive" and "television at its best." And that's as true today as it was when the biographies first aired.

The 10 documentaries were made by five different production teams and are as different as the men they portray. But they are all portraits that bring the presidents to life.

For example, the first half of the FDR documentary looks at his early years, his trouble fitting in, his marriage to Eleanor and the difficulties in that marriage, his fight with polio and his eventual elections as governor of New York and president.

It's not about his policies but about him. About what made FDR the man he was.

The conclusion deals with the last 12 years of his life — his presidency, the Great Depression and World War II. It's great stuff, well worth sitting down to watch.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Ronald Reagan comes in for similar treatment. The documentary first aired six years before his death — and five years after he announced he had Alzheimer's — and explores his early years, his career as an actor and Screen Actors Guild president, his surprise rise to the governorship of California, his staunch anti-communism, the attempt on his life and the legacy he left behind.

It plays up his great successes while not ignoring his failures, most notably the Iran-Contra scandal.

As is the case with all 10 documentaries, it is respectful without being fawning — they were produced by filmmakers, not political ideologues.

For example, while writer/director/producer Adriana Bosch expressed her admiration for Jimmy Carter when she was interviewed by TV critics, her documentary is not a glowing portrait, it's more a warts-and-all photograph. It focuses on his greatest triumph (the Camp David accord that brought peace between Israel and Egypt) as well as his greatest defeat (the humiliating Iran hostage crisis) and other highs and lows of his administration.

And the "American Experience" documentary attempts to understand how Carter could be both so right and so wrong for the job of president.

"How can somebody who is such a savvy politician in a campaign be so flat-footed in governing?" Bosch said.

It's questions like that one that these documentaries explore.

Simply having the 10 programs on DVD would be worth putting on your shelf. And three of the documentaries have extras that didn't air on PBS:

• "Woodrow Wilson" contains minidocumentaries on race relations, women's suffrage and labor rights; profiles of key figures in Wilson's life; interviews with the filmmakers and scholars; galleries of photos and WWI poster art; and a scholar's forum on Wilson's legacy.

• "George H.W. Bush" contains a look inside his 1988 campaign, his 80th-birthday parachute jump and a teacher's guide.

• "The Kennedys" contains an interview with historian Robert Dallek about JFK's "hidden life," the Kennedy family tree and a teacher's guide.

"The Presidents Collection" is not, believe it or not, complete. Missing are profiles of George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower as well as documentaries about the showdown between JFK and George Wallace over segregation and Nixon's initiative with China.

But it's hard not to appreciate a "collection" of 10 outstanding documentaries.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com