For a reflective pause in the storm that is the 2016 presidential election, see “The White House: Inside Story,” at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.
No, it’s not about the scandalous and dirty deeds that have taken place there over the centuries. It’s about the building, what it represents and what living or working in it is like.
It’s about the weight of the place and the remarkable achievement it represents.
“One of the really great things about our country is the peaceful transfer of power,” Laura Bush, a former first lady, says just after an image flashes by of Barack and Michelle Obama in a moment of electoral triumph. “It’s a wonderful symbol for the rest of the world. There is a great continuity in the White House.”
The documentary zips through a history of the building: constructed in part by slave labor; burned during the War of 1812; in such disrepair in the middle of the last century that one recommendation was to tear it down and start over.
Along the way, the White House evolved from a residence where just about anyone could come to call on the president to more of a fortress, albeit one that offers formal tours for the public.
The film is at its best, though, when it gives a sense of what it’s like to work inside. We meet Angella Reid, chief usher, who oversees a vast White House staff, and hear from a former holder of that post, Gary Walters, about that most eventful of days, Sept. 11, 2001.
And, of course, we hear from the residents in chief, past and present. A segment on children in the White House isn’t especially illuminating, but the grown-ups who speak are. Barbara Bush eloquently describes the aura in a building rich in imposing artifacts.
“The upstairs at the White House, which isn’t seen by everybody, is filled with history,” she says. “You feel a lot of history. And you hope you can live up to it.”
The responsibilities that come with the keys are enough to make you wonder why anyone would run for president at all.
Images of President Lyndon B. Johnson looking exhausted as Vietnam War protests rage outside capture the pain and pressure. So does President Jimmy Carter when he reminisces about his tenure and his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev.
“I used to sit in the Oval Office sometimes early in the morning, and I would deliberately look at a globe that was there,” he says. “And I would turn it to Moscow, and I would try to put myself in the position of President Brezhnev, and how he looked at his own country, and how he looked at my country. And I would try to think how I could avoid a potential war between the two superpowers.”
Running for president, the documentary reminds us, is just a sideshow. Benefits await the winner, but so do substantial burdens.