Presidential Movies

Neal Gabler, writing in this months American Prospect gives a poignant view of presidents past:

Every president, whether he says so explicitly or not, approaches the presidency with a metaphor in mind. Theodore Roosevelt thought of his as a “bully pulpit” from which to educate the public. Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to think of his as a national living room from which he could bolster American spirits in dark times. John F. Kennedy seemed to think of his as a salon. George W. Bush acted as if his were a testosterone-drenched fraternity.

Each of these metaphors has its benefits — and its problems — but it was left to Reagan to find a metaphor that reshaped the entire institution of the presidency to the point where his successors could ignore his conception at their peril. For him, the presidency was no bully pulpit, living room, salon, or fraternity. Nor was it the college lectern that Obama seems to think it is from which he can calmly and rationally explain his policies. It was a darkened theater in which Reagan could project a movie about the country’s desires and dreams — an American fantasy.

Reagan came to this idea naturally from his training as an actor. An actor’s object is to move an audience, excite it, and ultimately give it pleasure. When Reagan entered politics, he intuited that theatrical performance and political office were essentially the same. The goal was, once again, effect — to make the audience feel. He understood that in the age of mass culture, the relationship between the president and his public was paramount and that his primary role was to be the actor-in-chief who starred in the national movie and provided vicarious thrills.

This was a radically different conception of the presidency, but because it was couched in all sorts of bold policy pronouncements, not everyone caught on that the pronouncements were smokescreens covering the movie screen. Before Reagan, only FDR seemed to have presentiments that the presidential function was as much psychological as political and that an effective president, particularly in bad times, had to be an entertainer as much as, if not more than, a politician. Die-hard liberals used to blanch when Reagan cited FDR as his inspiration, but this is undoubtedly what he meant. Roosevelt wasn’t a political forebear; he was an aesthetic forebear who vehemently promoted optimism.

Still, FDR was a traditionalist. For him, aesthetics were in the service of politics — a way to gain support for his agenda. Reagan’s political genius, such as it was, was to recognize that politics is basically aesthetics, that the public is an audience, and that the president has to satisfy that audience. He realized that people care less about what you do in substantive political terms if you manage to buoy them psychologically. They want to feel good — the way they feel when the lights come up at the movie theater. That’s why Reagan wasn’t a detail man. He knew that the details were irrelevant. It was the show that counted.

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