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Hollywood's White House

Hollywood's White House: The American Presidency in Film and History

Peter C. Rollins
John E. O’Connor
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood's White House
    Book Description:

    " Winner of the 2003 Ray and Pat Browne Book Award, given by the Popular Culture Association The contributors to Hollywood's White House examine the historical accuracy of these presidential depictions, illuminate their influence, and uncover how they reflect the concerns of their times and the social and political visions of the filmmakers. The volume, which includes a comprehensive filmography and a bibliography, is ideal for historians and film enthusiasts.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2792-7
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
    (pp. x-xvi)
    Richard Shenkman

    As it should be, a main theme of this book is Hollywood’s failure to depict adequately the presidents of the United States. Movies almost always get the basic facts wrong. They usually present one-dimensional presidents who are either all evil or all saint; and they perpetuate hoary myths to appease the audience’s expectations. As good as Henry Fonda is inYoung Mr. Lincoln,for example, there are still vast corners of Lincoln’s personality and character that the film fails to explore. Fonda portrays Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln—strong, folksy, almost an innocent—an appealing Lincoln, to be sure, but one who...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)
    John E. O’Connor and Peter C. Rollins

    In the closing scene ofThe Candidate(1972), Robert Redford, playing a senatorial aspirant who has just won a heated election campaign, turns to his aides to ask quizzically: “What do we do now?” The dramatized scene is memorable partly because such revealing “behind the scenes” images are so rare, except in the few independently produced documentaries that have attempted to portray political campaigns from the inside. In contrast, most of the essays in this volume discuss Hollywood’s view of what a score of presidents did—or failed to do—during their terms of office. More importantly, they consider how...

  5. Part One. Representing American Presidents

    • George Washington, The Crossing, and Revolutionary Leadership
      (pp. 19-29)
      Stuart Leibiger

      The Arts and Entertainment Network’s 1999 filmThe Crossingrecreates the harrowing but inspirational story from the American Revolutionary War of the resurrection of a general, an army, and a nation from the depths of defeat and despair. After tracing the Continental Army’s desperate retreat across the Delaware River from New Jersey into Pennsylvania, the film tells how the American forces regrouped themselves, recrossed the river on the night of 25 December 1776, and captured a garrison of elite Hessian troops stationed at Trenton in a surprise attack at dawn. The protagonist is, of course, George Washington, whose fortitude and...

    • The Adams Chronicles: Domesticating the American Presidency
      (pp. 30-49)
      Scott F. Stoddart

      The publishing community witnessed an intriguing phenomenon in the summer of 2001 when David McCullough’s biographyJohn Adamsdebuted on theNew York Timesbest-seller list at number one and remained there for fourteen weeks. The 751-page book gathered praise from throughout the critical world for its engaging style, detailing the life and career of America’s second president—a president not noted for much other than being the only president to father another president (a feat only repeated after the 2000 election).¹

      However, John Adams had enjoyed popular-culture status before.² For the celebration of America’s Bicentennial, the Exxon Corporation funded...

    • Jefferson in Love: The Framer Framed
      (pp. 50-61)
      Jim Welsh

      Jefferson in Pariswas the name of the picture, butJefferson in Lovewas surely the primary agenda of the Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory film that demeaned the reputation of our third president. This was perhaps a product of the times, a decade of scandal for Mr. Jefferson’s namesake in the White House when the film was made, William Jefferson Clinton. The film took an understanding and tolerant approach, as if intending to forgive the alleged attachment between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. As portrayed in the film, their flirtation even comes close to being cute, though not so cute...

    • Abraham Lincoln in John Ford’s The Iron Horse: Both Trumpets and Silences
      (pp. 62-75)
      Andrew Piasecki

      John Ford’sThe Iron Horse,released in 1924, has acquired the status of a classic film of the Hollywood silent era. It tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad between 1862 and 1869, a heroic feat that exemplifies American vision, manifest destiny, and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. This momentous engineering project, undertaken by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, was completed after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865; however, the president has a vital role to play in the film as the paternal and spiritual leader who brings unity and progress out of the chaos of the...

    • Redeeming Lincoln, Redeeming the South: Representations of Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Historical Scholarship
      (pp. 76-95)
      Bryan Rommel-Ruiz

      In 1922, President Warren Harding, Chief Justice William Taft, Civil War veterans, and Dr. Robert Moton of Tuskegee College led the ceremony commemorating the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The presence and speeches of these distinguished men illuminated the division over the nation’s historical memory of President Lincoln: Was he the man who saved the Union? Or was he the man who freed the slaves? While we may think that he did both, the answer was not so simple for a nation which seven years prior to the dedication of the memorial was commemorating the fiftieth...

    • Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders: A Century of Leadership in Film
      (pp. 96-114)
      J. Tillapaugh

      Theodore Roosevelt was a transformational leader who brought the people of the United States, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century. His image was carved on a mountain in South Dakota, along with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. These presidents transformed their nation through commitments to change, as opposed to those caretakers who only transacted presidential business. Despite the occasional critic, the quality of TR’s leadership has passed all the tests for a century of American history.¹ Roosevelt’s rise to national leadership coincided with the inventions that pennitted the development of the motion picture industry. He embraced the new technology...

    • Wilson in Technicolor: An Appreciation
      (pp. 115-124)
      Donald E. Staples

      In 1915, D.W. Griffith released his masterpiece film,The Birth of a Nation,to the public; he also held a private screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. This was the first recorded showing of a feature film in the White House, and President Wilson reacted by stating that, “It is like writing history with lightning” (Cook 77). As a historian who wrote extensively, Wilson was obviously impressed. It was to be expected, however, Griffith played on Wilson’s academic ego by quoting from Wilson’s writings on the screen. Since this was a silent film with all of the...

    • A Juxtaposition of Conflicting Images: Hubert H. Humphrey and the Television Coverage of Chicago, 1968
      (pp. 125-140)
      Jaap Kooijman

      “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” demonstrators in the streets of Chicago shouted while the television cameras were rolling (Barnouw 419; White 299). And the world was watching. Held in Chicago on 26-29 August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention was extensively covered by the television networks of the day: ABC, CBS, and NBC. In the words ofNewsweekcolumnist Kenneth Crawford, the networks presented the convention “in glorious living color, big as life and twice as natural” (Crawford 36). For many Americans, Chicago 1968—both the violence in the streets as well as the disorder on...

  6. Part Two. Hollywood’s “Take”:: The Presidency in Fiction Films

    • Motion Picture Presidents of the 1930s: Factual and Fictional Leaders for a Time of Crisis
      (pp. 143-158)
      Michael G. Krukones

      Motion pictures tell us something about ourselves, who we are as a people; express our aspirations; and reveal much about our national character. Review the movies produced in the United States during any era and you will discover a cinematic canvas of the nation’s history on which is presented the attitudes and beliefs of the people toward its leaders and political institutions. This study examines presidents in film in one of the earliest periods of movies, the decade of the 1930s, an era of great unrest in the nation. The Great Depression, the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the creation...

    • Gabriel Over the White House (1933): William Randolph Hearst’s Fascist Solution for the Great Depression
      (pp. 159-179)
      Deborah Carmichael

      In today’s vocabulary, “fascism” carries ominous implications from historical hindsight, but during the Great Depression many Americans believed that a fascist government was needed to relieve the nation’s distress. Emotionally overwhelmed by the problems facing the country, citizens were willing to surrender individual rights to an executive given centralized control economically, politically, and socially.Gabriel Over the White Housebrought William Randolph Hearst’s version of this fascist solution to the screen shortly after the 4 March 1933 inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.¹ The players behind the scenes are as fascinating as the characters on the screen. This 1933 MGM release,...

    • Populism, Pragmatism, and Political Reinvention: The Presidential Motif in the Films of Frank Capra
      (pp. 180-192)
      Ian Scott

      When the hero of Frank Capra’s 1936 film,Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,makes a pilgrimage to the tomb of America’s eighteenth president, Ulysses S. Grant, it was a warning that all was not as it seemed in Capra’s movie world.

      Longfellow Deeds, who has recently arrived in New York to claim a $20 million inheritance, takes a bus trip with newspaper reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) to the site of Grant’s Tomb. On a murky, foggy evening, Babe introduces the monument. “Well, there it is, Grant’s tomb. Hope you’re not too disappointed,” she sighs. Longfellow clearly feels it is...

    • The Absent President: Mr. Smith, The Candidate, and Bulworth
      (pp. 193-205)
      Linda Alkana

      Historians use films to teach history. Educators use films in much the same way as they use books and historical documents, by placing them in a context, analyzing their messages, and critiquing their content. Such films work for teaching because the subject matter and the time period involved are usually circumscribed and self-evident.All Quiet on the Western Front,for example, is about World War I and the peace movement that followed it;All the President’s Mengives insight into the Nixon years and Watergate.

      Because of the usefulness of historical films for teaching history, it is worthwhile to investigate...

    • Who’s In Charge Here?: Technology and the Presidency in Fail-Safe (1964) and Colossus (1970)
      (pp. 206-222)
      Robert E. Hunter

      Early in the Kennedy administration (1961–1963), the president informed Dr. Jerome Wiesner, his science adviser, that the phone which would warn the chief executive of an impending Soviet nuclear strike was missing from the Oval Office. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had supposedly kept this “‘red telephone’” in a drawer of his presidential desk. Without this device, the leader of the Free World lost his most direct link with both the American earlywarning system and U.S. nuclear forces. President Kennedy had already unsuccessfully searched for the telephone, but together he and Wiesner tackled the desk and “pulled out all...

    • The 100 Million$ Men: Presidential Action/Adventure Heroes of Independence Day (1996) and Air Force One (1997)
      (pp. 223-233)
      John Shelton Lawrence

      Several factors affect the voting behavior of young people: transience, obstacles to voter registration, and the kind of stake that comes from home ownership. Do film images of the American presidency also play a role? Here the assumption is made that they do cultivate young tastes for screenlike presidents. It then follows that certain kinds of presidential candidates become necessary to sustain and to increase the participation of younger voters.

      During the past forty years, American presidential elections have had a declining appeal for young citizens. As a belated legitimation for the Vietnam draft (and a potential stimulant for youth...

    • A Man of His Word: Aaron Sorkin’s American Presidents
      (pp. 234-248)
      Laren P. Quiring

      The idea of American presidential history as a succession of visionaries, interrupted only by the occasional fop or fool, is tied to the idea of America itself as a land of self-creation, a place of freely becoming what we freely speak. A leader’s words matter not because they issue from divine right but because “speaking up” is the instrument of political being. If a man does not talk, someone else will, and that utterance will displace him. In the ontology of American citizenship, what oneisdepends on what onesays.Talking is being, a phenomenon that makes the relationship...

  7. Part Three. Closing in on the Present

    • Hollywood’s Presidents, 1944–1996: The Primacy of Character
      (pp. 251-262)
      Peter C. Rollins

      Is presidential “character” a proper topic for discussion and debate? During the presidential campaign of 1992, the question of character was pushed off the national agenda in favor of the issue of economics. Such would not be the case in the subsequent presidential contest in 1996, when Bob Dole was hardpressed to attract attention away from an incumbent who, with masterful political maneuvering, had moved back to “New Democrat” positions after four years of “Old Democrat” actions. Most Americans in the fall of 1996 found themselves in a more prosperous situation as the Dow hit a record high. With his...

    • Richard Nixon as Dick (1999) and the Comedic Treatment of the Presidency
      (pp. 263-274)
      Charlene Etkind

      The United States has no king, no one ruler invested with the power of “The State,” ruling over the kingdom with benevolent grace. One man, who has just a few short years to guide this complex and changing country, heads the United States. The American presidency is not invested with the same glory and majesty that a dynastic kingship carries; the president’s reign is too short. But the American public has elevated the office to mythic status and holds its occupant in reverent awe. Most men elected to the presidency bring to the office their foibles and peccadillos, which ultimately...

    • “Biological Business-as-Usual”: The Beast in Oliver Stone’s Nixon
      (pp. 275-287)
      Donald Whaley

      One line historians have taken in criticizing Oliver Stone’sNixonis to attack Stone’s use of the Beast, a metaphor that appears in the film.¹ Stephen Ambrose, in an essay onNixon,gives an account of the scene in which Nixon talks with Vietnam War protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. A young woman asks why Nixon does not stop the war, then, beginning to comprehend, she says, “You can’t stop it, can you? Even if you wanted to. Because it’s notyou.It’s the system. And the system won’t let you stop it.” Nixon says to his chief of staff,...

    • Myth and Reality in the Hollywood Campaign Film: Primary Colors (1998) and The War Room (1994)
      (pp. 288-308)
      Myron A. Levine

      Two film accounts of the 1992 election seek to provide an “insider’s” view of how a modem presidential campaign is fought and won.Primary Colors(1998), based on the novel by campaign-trail reporter Joe Klein (who wrote under the pseudonym Anonymous), presents a fictionalized parallel to Bill Clinton’s rise in the 1992 Democratic primaries.The War Room(1994) claims even greater authenticity as a documentary that was afforded unique access to the Clinton campaign headquarters (the “war room”) in Arkansas.

      But just how accurately do these films portray the making of the president? How well do these portrayals stack up...

    • Bestowing Knighthood: The Visual Aspects of Bill Clinton’s Camelot Legacy
      (pp. 309-319)
      Luc Herman

      John F. Kennedy’s presidential style continues to be epitomized by Camelot. When it comes to appointing roles in the Camelot musical as it was performed in the Kennedy White House, one might say that JFK was simultaneously King Arthurandthe Knights of the Round Table. He was the man of reason who understood intricate situations and could make practical decisions, but he was also young and forever growing, an idealist warrior—the so-alled “knight in shining armor”—whose every move was a stepping-stone in a policy that would receive its fulfillment in his second term. Kennedy himself was allegedly...

    • Hollywood, Impersonation, and Presidential Celebrity in the 1990s
      (pp. 320-332)
      David Haven Blake

      In Rob Reiner’s filmThe American President(1995), the lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) receives a phone call from the widower Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who also happens to be the president of the United States. Wade has been sitting in her sister’s Washington apartment, bemoaning her embarrassing performance during a morning meeting at the White House. “I acted like a college freshman at a protest rally,” she complains—and justly so, for not only had she accidentally insulted the president to his face, but later in a spirited display of resolve, she had briskly exited the Oval Office...

    • Television Satire and the Presidency: The Case of Saturday Night Live
      (pp. 333-348)
      John Matviko

      The last quarter of the twentieth century saw significant changes in the relationship between American mass media, especially television, and the presidency. In the summer of 1974, Richard Nixon, after months of media revelations about presidential wrongdoings, resigned as President of the United States. The media, acting as the fourth branch of government, had pursued President Nixon, and the judicial and legislative branches had followed. In a climate that not only permitted but encouraged criticism of the presidency, television asserted its right to scrutinize and satirize the presidency—at first, in news programs, such as60 Minutes,and then later...

  8. Part Four. Bibliographic Overview

    • The Transformed Presidency: The Real Presidency and Hollywood’s Reel Presidency
      (pp. 351-380)
      Myron A. Levine

      The American presidency has undergone considerable transfonnation since World War II. As the presidency assumed new domestic and foreign-policy responsibilities, the number of staff members who work for the White House expanded; new advisory structures were also created to assist the president. The result has been the emergence of an enlarged, institutionalized White House that demands considerable managerial talent from a president. Another quite obvious area of change is in communications where advances in technology have provided skilled presidents with new tools ofleadership—while at the same time also offering new forums for media critics and the president’s opponents.


  9. Appendix

    • A Filmography for Images of American Presidents in Film
      (pp. 383-402)
      John Shelton Lawrence
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 403-410)
  11. Index
    (pp. 411-441)