The dreaded day comes Friday, but we found a great new PBS Distribution two-disc DVD that trumps it all: 16 for ’16: The Contenders. The multi-part documentary features candidates in the most contentious and compelling political campaigns of the last 50 years and includes interviews with candidates and their inner circles that offer unexpected human moments and new insights into political battles for the U.S. presidency.
Each part in the program features two candidates whose stories appear vastly different on the surface but share common elements that changed the outcomes of campaigns and the course of history.
16 for ’16: The Contenders will be available on DVD January 24; the program will also be available for digital download.
The program kicks off with one such unlikely pair: 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, the first black American and first female to run for the country’s top post, and Senator John McCain, who ran against George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries and against Barack Obama for the presidency in 2008. Despite extraordinarily different backgrounds, Chisholm and McCain both ran as plain-spoken outsiders. Chisholm’s slogan, “Unbossed and Unbought,” was underscored by a grassroots approach that saw her teams collecting cash in the streets, while McCain’s image as an outspoken maverick often led him to speak off-the-cuff.
The show depicts game-changing moments in both campaigns: Chisholm’s betrayal by a friend in the House of Representatives who, at the last moment, decided he would not officially nominate her; and a revealing off-camera show-down between McCain and George W. Bush just prior to a live debate.
The second part revisits the campaigns of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and conservative insider Pat Buchanan—men of two divergent perspectives who were seen as insurrectionists within their own parties. Dean provided a voice for furious Democrats who opposed the war in Iraq and brought “participatory democracy” innovations to his campaign, such as the introduction of Internet fundraising that is now a standard part of campaigns.
Buchanan—a so-called “paleo-conservative” insider who served several American presidents and advocated a strong move rightward for the Republican Party—ran twice for the Republican presidential nomination (1992 and 1996) and on the Reform Party ticket in 2000. Despite the strategies, scripts, data analysis and marketing that went into these campaigns, it was, again, the human moments that led to their unpredicted outcomes. For Dean, it was the excitement (and problematic acoustics) that gave rise to his infamous, campaign-imploding “scream.” For Buchanan, who had barely recovered from heart surgery at his first convention in 1992, a decision to go off the party script and detail his concept of a “cultural war” for the soul of America resulted in a speech that many believe divided Republicans and propelled Bill Clinton to the White House.
Pairings for the balance of the series include: Mitt Romney and Michael Dukakis; Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson; Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan; Ross Perot and Ralph Nader; Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin; and George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Featured alongside the candidates, their families and their friends are a who’s who of campaign managers, observers and Washington, D.C., insiders such as Susan Estrich, Karl Rove, Donna Brazile, Karen Hughes and dozens more. Through background stories of groundbreaking campaign moments, fatal missteps, behind-the-scenes insights and lessons learned by each candidate, the series explores deeper questions such as “Can a positive campaign be a winning campaign?” and “Should a single misstep define a campaign and a candidate?”