How Hollywood Imagines American Presidents

Culture Watch

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Quick: Name a president who was so hungry for power and influence that he ran for public office at age twenty-three, married a woman "above his station," and represented rich corporations. Probably Abraham Lincoln does not come to mind. Who's to blame? Hollywood.

Hollywood's depiction of American presidents is by and large a record of failure. The movies almost always get the basic facts wrong. They usually give us one-dimensional presidents, either all evil or all saint. And they perpetuate hoary myths to appease the audience's expectations. Good as Henry Fonda is in Young Mr. Lincoln, for example, there are vast corners of Lincoln's personality and character that the film fails to explore.

More troubling, Hollywood gives us presidents who have little emotional depth. Watching Ralph Bellamy in Sunrise at Campobello the audience knows that it is only catching a fleeting glimpse of the real FDR as he strives to survive polio. Bellamy's FDR groans and appears in pain. He struggles to stand upright. But he remains a cardboard character for the most part. Does the audience realize it took FDR a year to move his big toe?

It is no wonder that Hollywood has found the presidents difficult to come to grips with. They are an inscrutable bunch. Who really was George Washington? A hundred biographers have tried to pin him down and not one has yet got him quite right. Beholden to the mythology of the president who was "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen," writers usually settle for the classic stuffed-shirt version. And yet what a bewildering set of contradictions was this giant of a man. One minute he could tell a ribald joke, the next stare down a subordinate for daring to strike a note of informality. Such a man is not easily captured on film.

The most frequent complaint about presidential movies is that they get the facts wrong. What is more puzzling is that the producers, directors and actors so seldom get presidential character right either, though character development is at the heart of the Hollywood drama. And yet who could blame them? The character of presidents is nearly unfathomable. Like every successful politician, presidents' motives are mixed. Not a one behaved nobly at all times and yet they all behaved nobly on some occasions. A powerful idealistic streak runs through the presidents. An astonishingly large number-ten in all-were raised to be ministers or were the children of ministers. And yet they could be guilty of the most heinous political subterfuges, and act every bit the equal of the rogues who have strolled through the histories of countries seemingly less cursed than ours.

They are a vastly heterogeneous lot. There have been insecure people like Richard Nixon, boisterous outsized extroverts like Teddy Roosevelt, and remote, almost shy introverts like Woodrow Wilson. There have been tall presidents like the six-foot-three Washington and short ones like the five-foot four Madison. No wonder Hollywood has trouble with them.

The first time I met a president was in 1972. I was seventeen and I was in Miami to attend the Republican National Convention at which Richard Nixon was nominated for a second term as president. On the last night of the convention, after Nixon had given his acceptance speech, people in the convention hall were given the opportunity to shake the president's hand. When it was finally my turn I told him that I was a Democrat but that I liked him anyway and wished him the best. Maybe he had not expected to meet a Democrat at that moment. Or maybe he did not believe that I liked him. For whatever reason Nixon froze, if ever so briefly. Thirty years later I can still see the awkward look of confusion that crossed his face. It was like nothing I have ever seen on the face of any actor playing a president in the movies.

And yet, badly as Hollywood often presents the presidents, it has had an enduring impact on how we see them, how they behave, and even, in a few cases, on who won.

Curiously (or maybe not) as institutions the modern presidency and the film industry became anchored in American society at about the same time. A single event was responsible for the timely twin metamorphosis: the Spanish-American War. Before the war few paid much attention to the presidency, which had become by the end of the nineteenth century so vacuous that Thomas Wolfe would later famously refer to the holders of the office as "the lost Americans. … whose gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, [and] swam together." "Which had the whiskers," he asked, "which the burnsides: which was which?" It hardly mattered. Then came the sinking of the Maine, the Battle of Manila, and the quick defeat of the Spanish empire. Suddenly, who was president did matter.

Hungry for news about the war, Americans turned to their newspapers and the movies. Any day of the week you could stroll through the downtown of an American city and see crowds streaming into theaters to catch the afternoon show, which featured newsreel footage from the war accompanied by a live band playing the "Stars and Stripes." When the Americans on the screen battled to victory over the Spanish loud hoots of joy could be heard as the audience broke into cheers. That much of the newsreel footage was actually shot in West Orange, New Jersey in an open field with troops borrowed from the New Jersey National Guard, did not matter. For the first time in history, thanks to Thomas Edison and other early filmmakers, Americans could see--or seem to see--what was happening on the battlefields they had been reading about in their newspaper.

The great hero of the war of course was Teddy Roosevelt, the colonel who led the Rough Riders on their celebrated charge up San Juan Hill (actually, Kettle Hill, but what's the difference?). Much of the footage featuring TR's triumphs was faked as the cameramen found it difficult and dangerous to lug around their heavy machinery on live battlefields. No matter. The staged footage provided Americans with what they wanted, and the picture industry got what it wanted: a string of hits.

The two institutions were very different then. Only later would it dawn on presidents that a big part of their daily job is acting. But beginning with Teddy Roosevelt presidents became aware of the importance of visual images. David McCullough reminds us that when Teddy visited the Panama Canal to see what he had wrought, he "was photographed his every waking hour on the scene." It was, says McCullough, "the first great presidential photo opportunity in history." Even Dwight Eisenhower, salt of the Kansas earth, would find it necessary to hire an actor, Robert Montgomery, to learn how to perform on the stage that is the modern presidency. At the end of the century there was Ronald Reagan, the erstwhile actor. It was almost inevitable, was it not?

The political scientists say that the voters do not judge presidents by image but by issues. Perhaps. But image obviously is a factor and because it is the presidency and Hollywood have come to seem like two very similar institutions, despite their obvious differences. Hollywood values and techniques now infuse presidential politics. Like actors presidents are coached on what to say and how to say it. They follow scripts. They project an image and surround themselves with handlers to protect their image. The more popular they are the more power they have. They limit their public appearances so the public doesn't begin to find them boring. They have to appear natural when on camera (a most unnatural circumstance). And they are judged by the quality of their performances.

Hollywood is not responsible for the preoccupation of presidents with image; presidents have always been concerned with their image, none more so than the first, Washington, who understood that he was most useful as a symbol of national unity. But Hollywood has showed presidents how to project their image in visual ways and by transforming American society has given us voters a new-found respect for imagery. Such is the state of American culture that a president who knows how to manipulate his image is thought by many to be better suited for the office than one who is incompetent at the task. Just ask Jimmy Carter, who forfeited a brilliant image as a big-toothed smiling Man of the People for an image as an incompetent, memorialized in the stunning visual anecdote about him battling a "killer" rabbit from a small boat.

The images we carry around in our heads of particular presidents--which surely influence the way we think about the presidency as an institution and, indirectly, the way we vote--owes something to Hollywood but less than one might imagine.

Take FDR. It is not Ralph Bellamy we think of when we think of FDR, it is FDR himself, perhaps because he was a greater actor than any of the people who have played him. (FDR to Orson Welles. There are two great actors in the country today. You are the other one.) One of the profoundly disappointing moments among many in the movie Pearl Harbor released in 2001 came when Jon Voight reprises FDR's great speech to Congress. Who in the audience did not think that FDR played the scene far better?

Presidents in the post-war world, William Leuchtenburg famously noted, lived in the "shadow of FDR." It was not his Hollywood shadow they lived in but his real one. Reality trumped image even as the culture became more and more soaked in imagery. No movie produced by Hollywood has made more of an indelible impression than Ike's smile, JFK's witty performances at press conferences, LBJ's haggard look in March 1968 as he announced his disavowal of another term, Nixon's self-serving "I am not a crook," Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," or Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman." (But of course, it is the images that we remember.)

Ironically, Hollywood has had the greatest impact on the way we think about individual presidents who lived before Hollywood came into existence. In the absence of actual footage of these presidents, we have let Hollywood fill in the blanks in our minds. Thus, Henry Fonda did not just play Lincoln in a movie. In a very real sense to us he was Lincoln.

If Hollywood's power to shape our perception of individual presidents has been limited, its power to determine how we think about presidents in general has been large. Hollywood, more than any other single force in society, has determined how people think a president should act and look. In other words, Hollywood has given us a standard by which to measure the actual people who inhabit the office.

It is perforce an extraordinary standard, requiring presidents to embody the flair of Michael Douglas in The American President, the wisdom of Henry Fonda in Fail Safe and the common touch of Ronald Reagan. A president today who lacks any of these qualities is at a disadvantage. Because no individual candidate for president, excepting FDR perhaps, has ever been blessed with all of these qualities presidential consultants have had to resort to artifice and imagery to compensate, an unwelcome development for which Hollywood is partly to blame.

Surprisingly, given the importance that film has assumed in our national culture, only two presidents can be said to have owed their election, even in part, to film: Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. In both cases film played a decisive role because of the power film offers to turn largely unknown people into celebrities. Both benefited powerfully by the celebrity they earned as film stars, Teddy as the star of the newsreel clips in the Spanish-American War, Reagan as an actual movie star.

John Kennedy may possibly be considered a third beneficiary of the film industry. In 1960, as he campaigned around the country, he had a camera crew film him constantly. The film was then developed on location (until the van in which the film was developed caught fire) and shipped to headquarters for use in campaign commercials and film biographies. It helped tremendously that he looked the part. Young, handsome, charismatic. The Camelot king. The movie star as president.

One difference between Hollywood and presidents is their relationship to facts. To the Hollywood producer facts are little things, easily moved around and manipulated. Dramas are said to be "based on a true story"; they are not the true story. After the appearance of every movie featuring real historical characters scholars inevitably find, as the scholars in this book do, that key facts have been distorted or omitted.

To politicians facts are more durable and cannot as easily be dispensed with. But even here the two institutions increasingly share common assumptions. As speechwriter Peggy Noonan pointed out in defense of Ronald Reagan, whose respect for facts was characteristically as casual as the producers for whom he long worked, the voters for the most part did not particularly care whether he got the facts right or wrong. Of far more importance to them was the storyline. And he nearly always got the storyline right. In the nineteenth century no president worried about storylines. Today no president can afford not to.

You can thank Hollywood for that development, too.

This article was first published as the foreword to Hollywood's White House: The American Presidency in Film and History, ed. Peter Rollins and John E. O'Connor (University Press of Kentucky, 2003) and is reprinted with permission.

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More Comments:

Peter Cushing Rollins - 7/18/2007

Now that the series has been released on DVD, teachers may also be interested in THE WEST WING: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY AS TELEVISION DRAMA (Syracuse UP, 2003).

Students enjoy this series and
selected episodes reveal much about
what some people see as the role
of the president in American society
and government.

Some critics believe that TWW just
wore itself out; it is my opinion that it could not exist without the Clinton presidency--it provided a noble, reel doppelganger for the real man in the oval office.

In any case, the series deserves attention and is a winner in the classroom.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/22/2003

I liked your conclusion with the comment about Storylines. It helped me to put to gether some long-brewing thoughts about Reagan and current politics.

As much as I was not fond of Reagan's policies, I have come to realize that his genius was the very "creativity" with facts that sill drives me nuts.

He presented a vision of the present and future that was close enough to reality not to be laughed at by most Americans and close enough to their desires to gain them his support.

This vision's storyline consisted policies couched in images that people related to. Those images in turn moved along a vision of America that most found either noble or strong.

Of course, not all his policies would have fit the story people liked to here. Those were relegated to Wonkville.

Most people don't like wonkville. Wonks like to bring up facts that grind stories to a halt. Wonks like to emphasize the ambiguous or the dire.

Not that wonks don't have stories to tell. But many of the truest ones people just don't like.

A present example: Global Warming is a damned good story, but who wants to be a part of that story? To make people understand that they are a part of that story whether they like it or not is hard. It doesn't offer nobility ("moral equivalent of war" be damned). It doesn't offer conquests, and signs of victory, and the defeat are even harder to interpret than the Thursday nignt body counts during the Vietnam War (a story that turned bad).

So, in the absence of a superb environmental political meistersinger, we wait for warming's Pearl Harbor. If a killer hurricane well beyond experience reverses Sherman's course and chews its way from Savannah to Atlanta and floods out Chatanooga, then it might get noble--or at least necessary--to do something.

But a Pacific island goes under here, a few more heat deaths there, are we a part of that story?