A new History Channel series uses fictionalized "reenactments" to knock Republican President William McKinley (1897-1901) as a corporate stooge who took bribes and had his speeches rewritten by business titan John D. Rockefeller. In contrast, The Men Who Built America, which aired in October and November, portrays liberal Democrat William Jennings Bryan as running "on a ticket promising equality for all."
The series focuses on Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller and the building of their corporate empires. The episodes "Changing the Game" and "When One Ends, Another Begins" include comical, Oliver Stone-esque dialogue. Referring to McKinley, "Morgan" hyperbolically declared, "We need to buy the president." "Carnegie" proclaimed, "He'll be our man in the White House."
Another invented scene showcased "Rockefeller" sliding piles of cash across a table to an unidentified McKinley campaign aide. The operative obligingly handed over a copy of the Republican's 1896 convention speech. "Rockefeller" theatrically crosses out whole sections, replying, "Make sure he [McKinley] sees it in time."
There's no doubt that Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie donated heavily to the McKinley campaign and feared the impact electing the left-wing Bryan would have on business. But the documentary's fanciful dramatic sequences imply it's bribery.
In contrast, narrator Campbell Scott hyped Bryan as
an up-and-coming political force who is drawing huge crowds, vowing to put an end to the country's monopolies. But Bryan's promise of change is bad news for the leaders of American business.
Scott insisted, "Bryan runs on a ticket promising equality for all, vowing to be a voice for the poor and to take the fight to the country's elite."
In another recreated scene "Bryan" denounced, "Republicans endeavor to overthrow and discredit all who honestly administer the law and to allow every wrongdoer to operate unchecked as long as he has enough money."
On December 30, 2011, the Washington Post explained the left-wing mind set of Bryan:
Throughout the 19th century, the Democrats had been the conservative, small-government party. In a single election, in which he campaigned with "an excitement that was almost too intense for life," as a contemporary reporter wrote, Bryan remade the Democratic Party into the progressive, populist group it remains today.
In 1896 and in his subsequent presidential campaigns in 1900 and 1908, he advocated for women’s suffrage, creation of the Federal Reserve and implementation of a progressive income tax, to name a few reforms. When Franklin Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, Herbert Hoover sniffed that it was just Bryanism by another name.
The History Channel's website touts the series for using "state of the art computer generated imagery that incorporates 12 million historical negatives." However, it's the reliance on invented scenes, sometimes with just two people in a room, that challenge whether such shows should be taken seriously.