Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Leading Man

The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image

Burton W. Peretti
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 344
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Leading Man
    Book Description:

    American presidents and Hollywood have interacted since the 1920s. This relationship has made our entertainment more political and our political leadership more aligned with the world of movies and movie stars.

    InThe Leading Man, Burton W. Peretti explores the development of the cinematic presidential image. He sets the scene in chapter 1 to show us how the chief executive, beginning with George Washington, was positioned to assume the mantle of cultural leading man. As an early star figure in the young republic, the president served as a symbol of national survival and wish fulfillment. The president, as head of government and head of state, had the potential to portray a powerful and charismatic role.

    At the center of the story are the fourteen presidents of the cinematic era, from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama. Since the 1920s, the president, like the lead actor in a movie, has been given the central place on the political stage under the intense glare of the spotlight. Like other American men, future presidents were taught by lead movie actors how to look and behave, what to say, and how to say it. Some, like John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, took particular care to learn from the grooming, gestures, movements, and vocal inflections of film actors and applied these lessons to their political careers. Ronald Reaganwasa professional actor. Bill Clinton, a child of the post-World War II Baby Boom, may have been the biggest movie fan of all presidents. Others, including Lyndon Johnson, showed little interest in movies and their lessons for politicians.

    Presidents and other politicians have been criticized for cheapening their offices by hiring image and advertising consultants and staging their public events. Peretti analyzes the evolution and the significance of this interaction to trace the convoluted history of the presidential cinematic image. He demonstrates how movies have been the main force in promoting appearance and drama over the substance of governing, and how Americans' lives today may be dominated by entertainment at the expense of their engagement as citizens.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5405-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    From 1958 to 1963, the scene was repeated on countless occasions across the United States, in parking lots and motorcades, on airport tarmacs and in hotel ballrooms. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, first a candidate and later the president of the United States, appeared in public. When the crowds saw him, they reacted viscerally and emotionally.

    Tanned, well-built, smiling, with a full head of brown hair, Kennedy especially elicited a powerful reaction from women. His campaign staff called the excited young women the “jumpers.” In Manhattan in 1960, when the publisher Henry Luce welcomed the candidate to the Time-Life building, “there was...

    (pp. 12-49)

    For a century before the 1890s, when Thomas Edison produced his first moving picture and William McKinley became the first president to be filmed, the president of the United States was being primed for his debut in the movie spotlight. This preparation came about through a series of developments that defined how the presidency was to be performed. On the speaker’s rostrum, at social occasions, in theater boxes, and even on vacation, the president became a cultural performer, a figure who at times transcended politics. During the nineteenth century, professional performing artists were earning increased status and prestige among Americans....

    (pp. 50-87)

    The presidency had deep roots in a culture of performance. Like entertainers, presidents (especially after 1900) exploited rapidly developing mass media to augment their presence in Americans’ lives. Whether he was politically strong or weak, a twentieth-century president benefited from the status he enjoyed in Washington society; the perception of the power of the office around his person; public relations, advertising, mass periodicals, radio, and the other machinery of modern celebrity; and the innovative example of Theodore Roosevelt, who infused his time in office with dramatic gestures, theatrical oratory, and evocations of aggressive masculinity.

    Into this context arrived motion pictures,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 THE OLD MAN AND TV, 1945–1960
    (pp. 88-122)

    On February 10, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt’s new vice president, Harry S. Truman, made an unannounced visit to the National Press Club in Washington, where a delegation from the Hollywood Canteen was entertaining troops, journalists, and bureaucrats. The names of participating movie celebrities had remained unannounced as well, to build anticipation and excitement among the crowd. A young studio contract player named Victor Mature appeared in one skit, but the heaviest applause greeted Lauren Bacall. Only twenty years old, Bacall was even greener than Mature as a screen actor, but her single role to date was a radiant one, a starring...

  8. CHAPTER 4 CHARISMA’S HOUR, 1960–1969
    (pp. 123-161)

    After 1960, when Dwight Eisenhower’s successor was elected, presidents made a bold return to the movies.

    This shift was made manifest in several ways. The 1950s had offered virtually no Hollywood portrayals of real or fictional chief executives. The only exceptions were two portrayals of Andrew Jackson by the young Charlton Heston, adding a southern accent to his granitic Moses persona.The President’s Ladywas a low-budget throwback to the presidential biographical films of the 1930s and 1940s—in fact, its chronicle of the ill-fated Rachel Jackson (Susan Hayward) might be considered a prequel toThe Gorgeous Hussy(1936), which...

    (pp. 162-202)

    As a young man, a future Republican president of the United States was a magnetic stage performer. He appeared in every theater production at his small private college, twice playing the lead. Long after the young man became a famous politician, his drama director recalled that “he was one of our first successful actors. . . . I wouldn’t have been surprised if, after college, he had gone on to New York or Hollywood looking for a job as an actor.” The director recalled that in one play the student portrayed a sixty-five-year old man and was able to summon...

    (pp. 203-242)

    August 20, 1998: President William Jefferson Clinton emerged from the site of his summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to announce that the United States had just bombed a suspected terrorist training camp in Khost, Afghanistan, and a nerve gas manufacturing facility in North Khartoum, Sudan. Seventy-five Cruise missiles launched from US Navy ships in the Red and Arabian seas found their targets hundreds of miles away. The CIA suspected that the camp and the factory were parts of a terrorist organization, headed by the wealthy Saudi Arabian Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, which was responsible for the bombing of...

  11. CHAPTER 7 THE TWIN TOWERS, 2001–2009
    (pp. 243-279)

    The presidential cinematic image achieved its definitive form during Bill Clinton’s presidency. It was an image that had been woven out of many strands. The marketing of individuals as political commodities through carefully calibrated public relations campaigns began in the Coolidge era and flourished in the 1960s, through the efforts of Kennedy and Nixon. Models from the movies helped to define the contours of those commodities. JFK and his charismatic emulators in the Democratic Party modeled their public personas on male types prevalent on the motion picture screen. Ronald Reagan did this as well, drawing upon a repertoire of models...

    (pp. 280-294)

    In the afternoon of May 1, 2011, top military and diplomatic officials, including the vice president and the secretary of state, joined President Barack Obama in the White House Situation Room, beneath the West Wing. The staff brought beverages and sandwiches to the twenty leading policymakers, who huddled at one end of the cramped room to watch a live video feed on a television monitor. The image came from a computer-operated spy camera mounted on a pilotless drone, circling 15,000 feet above Abbottabad, Pakistan. Shrouded by a moonless night, twenty-two Navy SEALs had traveled from the US base in Jalalabad,...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 295-320)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 321-336)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 337-338)