CNN’s ‘Race for the White House’ debuts tonight featuring Nixon, Kennedy, Clinton, Bush (twice)

WASHINGTON - MAY 29: Former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush (R) and Bill Clinton attend the dedication of the World War II Memorial May 29, 2004 in Washington DC. The memorial, completed last month, comes 59 years after the Allies victory in Europe and Japan. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The 1992 presidential campaign featuring George H.W. Bush (right) and Bill Clinton (left) are in an upcoming episode of “Race For the White House” on CNN. (Getty Images)

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Thursday, February 25, 2016

The narration by actor Kevin Spacey sounds almost like it could be the start of a spin-off version of Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

“For eight years, you’ve been a heartbeat away from the Oval Office,” Spacey intones in that sardonic Frank Underwood voice, referencing Richard Nixon in 1960. “A loyal vice president. Biding your time, waiting your turn. You know the path to power and you think you know the rules. But what happens when you discover you don’t even know how to play the game?”

But this is not fiction. This is an episode of the new docuseries on CNN called “Race for the White House” debuting March 6 at 10 p.m. featuring Nixon’s efforts to become president against a handsome, fresh-faced newcomer John F. Kennedy 56 years ago.

With election years generally bringing CNN its biggest ratings – this year being no exception – executives were seeking a series that would complement their daily coverage.

“Our audience loves history,” said Amy Entelis, executive vice president for CNN original series, citing the success of its “Sixties” and “Seventies” programs. “We want to give them something familiar but also provides them added depth and context.”

What’s even better for CNN, “the idea walked through our front door almost in perfect form,” she added. “It was a pitch from Kevin Spacey and his production team.”

This first season will focus on six different election cycles. Two are from the 19th century – the 1824 Andrew Jackson/John Quincy Adams battle and the Abraham Lincoln/Stephen Douglas race of 1860.

The other four are from the 20th century: Harry Truman/Thomas Dewey from 1948, John F. Kennedy/Richard Nixon from 1960, George H.W. Bush/Michael Dukakis from 1988 and Bill Clinton/Bush from 1992. CNN plans to air the Kennedy/Nixon face off first March 6.

Here’s Kevin Spacey talking with CNN comparing the current race to that of 1968 with George Wallace.

“There have been a lot of television documentaries about presidencies,” Entelis said. “This is actually focused on the campaigns themselves.”

To provide visual texture, CNN chose to do recreations. This is especially important for the 19th century campaigns where video did not exist. For instance, they re-enact the famous Lincoln/Douglas Senate debates where Lincoln’s oratory skills outmatched those of Douglas and was reported worldwide courtesy of the newfangled telegraph. And despite Lincoln’s “Honest Abe” reputation, his campaign was hardly squeaky clean.

They bring in a variety of academics, journalists and politicians as expert voices. In the Lincoln episode, former Georgian and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, CNN White House correspondent Jake Tapper and Clinton strategist Paul Begala are among those who provide play by play.

In the case of Kennedy/Nixon, only a handful of contemporaries were still alive to talk, including Patrick Buchanan, a senior advisor to Nixon from 1966 to 1973.

“I think we really manage to tell the stories in a way that is classy and again, captures the real sense of the era,” Entelis said.

As for using Spacey’s voice, she said that was a no brainer: “I couldn’t think of anybody better to voice the series. It’s a little inside baseball that everyone sort of knows wink wink. That ‘House of Cards’ connection is fun.”

TV PREVIEW

“Race for the White House,” 10 p.m. Sunday, March 6, 2016


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