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16 stories about what it takes to win, but mostly lose, the presidency

16 stories about what it takes to win, but mostly lose, the presidency
Howard Dean, Susan Estrich, and Carlos Watson talk about PBS' The Contenders: 16 for '16 at TCA in (Photo by Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

An eight-episode documentary series that looks at 16 presidential candidates from the past 50 years debuted last week on PBS: The Contenders: 16 for ’16. In the midst of an often mind-blowing and mind-numbing presidential contest, it’s a reminder of the tumultuous and challenging nature of our presidential politics—and the real people behind the headlines.

Of the 16 people profiled, just three were elected president: Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Journalist Carlos Watson created the series, which is being produced by his company OZY Media.

Each episode focuses on “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,” according to PBS. Its release noted that many of those candidates are featured: the series has “insight from Jesse Jackson, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Howard Dean, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, among others, who are vocal in discussing what went wrong and what they would do differently if given the chance.”

Last week’s episode focused on John McCain and Shirley Chisholm, who was the first woman and first black person to run for president in the United States, and whose story I didn’t know previously.

The eight episodes, which debut on Tuesday nights and are subsequently free to watch on PBS’ web site:

  1. Shirley Chisholm and John McCain, Sept. 13 (watch below)
  2. Howard Dean and Pat Buchanan, Sept. 20
  3. Mitt Romney and Michael Dukakis, Sept. 27
  4. Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, Oct. 4
  5. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Oct. 11
  6. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, Oct. 18
  7. Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, Oct. 25
  8. George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Nov. 1


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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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