John Patrick Diggins, author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series, Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, and Kirk Ellis, writer and co-executive producer of the HBO miniseries "John Adams," are discussing the show on TNR.com. Alan Taylor, author of Writing Early American History, joined the discussion last week. This is the twelfth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.)
Dear Jack and Kirk,
OK, so John Adams is no longer pathetic. I had felt that in Parts 3 to 5, HBO had made Adams seem ineffective, tone-deaf, and humiliated. In the sixth episode, which covers his presidency, Adams certainly shows the characteristics that made him a one-termer--but we now see more of his fierce independence and commitment to principle.
Yes, he alienated all his political allies--but he did so out of a principled (and correct) view that avoiding war was paramount. Yes, he was an inept partisan politician--but that grew, in part, out of his old-fashioned desire to run a non-partisan administration. Yes, he signed the Alien and Sedition Act--but, well, actually there’s no “but” there; that was simply the low point of Adams’s entire career. HBO helps us to understand why he felt besieged, but does not attempt to excuse him for it.
I felt this was the best episode since the first. The scenes of the ever-worsening relationship with Jefferson are riveting. Better yet, Adams plays Jefferson to a draw, seeming more principled and less partisan.
I am also relieved that Abigail finally has a few moments of ignominy. Until now, the series followed the pattern of those TV floor-wax-commercials--you know, the wise, unappreciated woman covering up for the dopey man. In this episode, we get to see Abigail as a thin-skinned hothead--overreacting to negative press clips--and John seeming wise and measured.
The cinematography and set design for the under-construction White House are visually extraordinary. The scenes outside--slaves and artisans, camped in bleak tents, in muddy misery--powerfully evoke just what a strange backwater the new capitol was. My favorite small detail is Adams looking at the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington. If you look closely, you see that it is not a reproduction of the Stuart portrait but a new painting of actor David Morse. Or did they just Photoshop in his face?
Whoever does the makeup for this should win some sort of award, too. I’m not one who normally notices these things, but even in this day of high-tech facial plastics and special effects, movies seldom show characters aging in a believable way. John Adams looked utterly believable as a young man, and just as believable as an old man. No easy feat. Kirk, any behind-the-scenes insights you can give us on that?
Two questions for Jack: At the very end, John Marshall reports to Adams that a treaty has been signed avoiding war with France, but notes that it was too late to influence the election because the electors had already sent in their ballots. Is it possible that, if the treaty had been known, Adams would have been re-elected?
Also, was it a big deal that Adams didn’t attend Jefferson’s inaugural?
John Patrick Diggins is a professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series. Kirk Ellis is the writer and co-executive producer of HBO's John Adams. Alan Taylor, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of Writing Early American History. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com and author of the newly released Founding Faith.
By John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, Alan Taylor, and Steven Waldman