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.

5 Responses to “Presidential Movies”

  • “George W. Bush acted as if his were a testosterone-drenched fraternity.”

    That’s an odd thing to say about W. Seems more appropriate for Clinton. In any case, this guy Gabler thinks too much can be explained by referencing movies. He needs a new metaphor.

  • Here’s a fun party trick:

    Next time you hear a Republican complaining about “Hollywood Liberals” and how they are always meddling in political stuff they know nothing about, offer to play this game – each one of you will take turns naming an actor/actress who went into politics. You name Republicans, and for each Republican, your friend must name a Democrat.

    Here’s how it usually goes –

    Your Republican friend: “Al Franken”
    You: “Ronald Reagan”
    Your Republican friend: “Ummmm…”
    You: “Sonny Bono”
    YRF: “Uhhh….”
    You: Fred Thompson
    You: Fred Grandy (Gopher from the Love Boat)
    YRF: “Ummm…”
    You: Arnold Shwarznegger
    YRF: “Did I mention Al Franken?”
    You: “Clint Eastwood”
    YRF: “Let’s play some other game.”
    You: “Shirley Temple Black”
    YRF: “OK. Whatever. What’s this supposed to prove?”

  • Laurence, an actor who goes into politics is not an actor, he or she is a politician. The complaint is about actors who do not run for election but use a status acquired elsewhere (usually given to them by writers and directors) to push a point of view. And it is usually a point of view picked up in a very cloistered life.

    I don’t know of anyone who said that Al Franken was not allowed to run for office.

  • Dom,

    I see. So, just to summarize what you’re trying to sell here:

    According to you – Once Al Franken decided to run for office Republicans ceased to refer to him as a “Hollywood Liberal” or to demean his political opinions on the basis of his background, because – as you put it – at that point he was a politician, rather than an actor.


    You really believe that?

    Because I can Google it for you if you need me to.

    I can guarantee you it won’t be hard to find Republicans who belittled Senator Franken for being a Liberal Actor from Hollywood during his election campaign, after his election, and probably last week and every week between his election and today.

    I can Google it if you really need me to. But do you really need me to?

  • Who is Al Franken?…. Obviously not that important.

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