White House: The American Presidency in Film and History
With contributions by two dozen scholars, Rollins and O’Connor have put together an interesting and useful resource on Hollywood and the American presidency. They first explore the treatment of the giants from Washington to Wilson; then go on to consider fictional presidencies that were offered to moviegoers. Finally they get to latter days at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This is quite a mouthful. In his Foreword, Richard Shenkman makes no bones about it, and the other contributors—mostly historians, political scientists, and communications types—tacitly agree. Hollywood almost always gets its history wrong. But not to worry. They will be writing about entertainment, with no time for nit-picking.
To begin with the Rushmore Four, only Jefferson has suffered at the hands of filmmakers. Allegations of his dalliance with a slave girl went back two hundred years. With changed attitudes towards race they inevitably became the subject of controversy, reflected notably in a screenplay Jefferson in Paris, in 1995 and a CBS teleplay in 2000. On the other hand, no one has come up with anything very bad about George Washington except his teeth, and his representation in movies and television has remained appropriately respectful. In a way, as confirmed by recent studies, the Founder has even passed muster on the sensitive subject of slaveholding. As a planter he worked his slaves hard and they endured the usual abuses of the system. But he took a different view when free blacks came to comprise a substantial part of the Continental Army. He began to see them as individuals and fellow citizens. In his will and against considerable family opposition, he not only freed all his slaves, but asked that they be educated. He went on record as favoring the abolition of the "peculiar institution" (cf. Gordon S. Wood, "Slaves in the Family," New York Times, Sunday Book Review, December 14, 2003).
Lincoln was shot before he became deeply embroiled in Reconstruction issues and survives as a hero for both Blue and Gray. Witness D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and the Lincoln films done during the thirties.
Timing is everything. Not so many years ago John Adams seemed an unlikely choice for a movie hero. He was "refloated" by a thirteen-part television series and David McCullough’s well-written book, plus the rising tide of gender consciousness. In contrast, back in 1944 a brilliant but didactic film on Woodrow Wilson by director Darryl Zanuck came too early to divert attention from the on-going war or inspire much enthusiasm for a new League of Nations. Because of their impact on Mexicans and Indians, it might be tricky nowadays to screen anything on Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, the strongest presidents between the Founders and Lincoln. This brings us to Teddy Roosevelt. He had his detractors, but most of his fellow-citizens found him, to use his favorite adjective, to be “dee-lightful.”
Theodore Roosevelt, the motion picture, and the Spanish-American War burst on the American scene about the same time. While the newsreels filmed Teddy whenever the opportunity arose, he did a good deal more for the movies than they did for him. J. Tillapaugh explains how the New Jersey National Guard was deployed in West Orange to provide footage of troops in action against the Spaniards. But Roosevelt was a master at promoting himself. When he wrote The Rough Riders, it inspired humorist Peter Finley Dunne to quip that it should have been called “Alone in Cubia” [sic]. If Teddy had actually won the war by himself, he should really own up and end the suspense. Far from being miffed, TR sought out Dunne and they became friends. He was depicted many times in films and his Rough Riders lived on as a staple of Western pictures.
The Great Depression shook popular faith in the American political system and evoked calls for stronger presidential action, as well as spawning groups who advocated a variety of "-isms." In 1933, William Randolph Hearst, newspaper and movie tycoon, financed Gabriel Over The White House, which reflected his yearnings for a strong man. The making of this film is described in detail by Deborah Carmichael. Conservatives thought it politically helpful to Franklin Roosevelt. At any rate he is known to have enjoyed watching it. Two years later, Hollywood appealed to the isolationist mood of the country in The President Vanishes, which portrayed a conspiracy by "Gray Shirts" to involve America in a European war. Director Frank Capra’s films are noted for their hopeful and idealistic tones during the turmoil of the Roosevelt-Truman presidencies.
For sheer drama, the deprivations of the Great Depression, which lasted roughly until America entered World War II, paled in comparison with the prospect of nuclear exchanges ushered in by Russia’s acquisition of "the bomb." The risk of accidentally triggering a holocaust provided an opportunity to portray in Colossus a president who vacated his responsibilities in favor of a computer. But in Fail Safe, Henry Fonda played a more resourceful leader.
Jaap Kooijman, a Dutch scholar, contributes a paper on the TV coverage of the bloody 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Disillusion with the actual presidency waxed with Viet Nam, Watergate, and the Clinton antics, to the point where the presidents were routinely razzed on late-night television, and film takes on the Chief Executive seemed to owe something to comic books such as Captain Shazaam.
Some moviemakers have flirted with the conspiracy theories of the Kennedy assassination. Others have earnestly wrestled with the contradictions of Richard Nixon. The popular West Wing features a president who tries to reestablish trust by liberating discourse from the thrall of the spin doctors. Following an eloquent introduction by the editors, who are veterans of film and history studies, Hollywood’s White House presents an array of interesting sketches. Many authors are familiars from such journals as Film & History, Presidential Studies Quarterly and The Journal of Popular Culture. Generally, they hold up FDR’s methods as a model for subsequent administrations, which at least should get them an argument. They provide ample documentation and even regale us with such gems as the tale of how Jackie Kennedy innocently made off with the telephone connecting JFK to his nuclear strike force when she replaced Eisenhower’s desk with a more decorative one, thus providing a gloss on tensions between the warrior and the nesting wife.