Those are the words of that great American historian…umm…I mean news anchor, Brian Williams, on Abraham Lincoln. Who the hell knows what he is talking about. I caught a few snippets of History’s recent series, “America: The Story of Us” and was disappointed on every level. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting much, maybe something with a little more history content than Ice Road Drivers Truckers and Pawn Stars. This little video on Lincoln sums up the fundamental flaws of this series.
First, who cares what Brian Williams, Soledad O’Brien, Michael Strahan, and Michael Douglas think about Abraham Lincoln and, for that matter, how exactly are they qualified to speak about anything having to do with American history? According to O’Brien, Lincoln had a couple of conversations with Frederick Douglass before deciding to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. From Strahan we learn that Lincoln stuck to his beliefs when they weren’t popular. O.K….I get it. Even the historian, H.W. Brands, sounds like a complete fool and I’ve enjoyed his books in the past. According to Brands, there was nothing in Lincoln’s early life that would have pointed to the presidency, as if this were the case with any of our presidents. Talk about narrative gone bad. What I find truly hilarious is that the most coherent and historically based commentary in this short segment comes from none other than Rev. Al Sharpton. If Sharpton had qualified his point regarding Lincoln’s position on black suffrage to a select and educated few he would have nailed it.
I have no problem with including high profile figures for entertainment purposes or even just to get a sense of how certain individuals remember the past, but the extent of their involvement took away from opportunities to actually at times examine the fundamental historical questions of what happened and why.
The most disturbing part of this series was the way in which Bank of America’s commercials supported the narrative. Actually, at times it felt as if the series itself was the extended commercial for Bank of America. Obviously, the company spent a great deal of money as the sponsor for the series, but when you have difficulty telling the difference between the program and the commercial you know you are in trouble.
It’s not impossible to produce a quality history documentary that is both entertaining and informative. In fact, I think History pulled it off with their program on “Sherman’s March.” [Click here for my review of the program.] Unfortunately, this was nothing more than fluff. I ordered a free copy of the series for my school, but I doubt that I will ever use it in my classroom.