Feeling somewhat mellow last week on my way home from London after my only daughter’s wedding to a very bright and attractive Frenchman we have known and liked for several years, I yielded to the Satanic temptation of an in-flight film. The Butler, billed as the true story of Cecil Gaines, who served as White House butler under all eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, stirred my curiosity, as well as my antennae for Hollywood mangling of history and the prodromal symptoms of Hollywood mytho-nausea alert. But the lingering pleasures that attach to being father of the bride lulled me into Morphean complacency, and I pressed the fatal buttons. The stroke was committed and it was inexorable. I take no issue with the depiction of the eventual White House butler’s mother’s being raped by the plantation owner, leaving her in a stupefied state for the rest of her life, nor with the rapist employer’s shooting the future White House butler’s father dead; it might have happened, and even if it didn’t, that segregated plantation life was an evil system and the rise of Cecil Gaines from a Macon plantation child-worker to White House head butler has all the makings of an uplifting tale.
I braced myself, however, for a portrayal of America’s leaders from 1945 to 1989, the whole extent of the Cold War, that could be a deadly ambush of character assassination, hagiographical myth-making, and equal-opportunity, no-fault, sure-grip treacle. My precautions were inadequate. If I had started on defibrillation as President Eisenhower came into view, I might have disembarked from the airplane several hours later without suffering glottal stops, suddenly walking in tight circles, repeating childhood prayers, and compulsively clutching my forehead, and would probably not still be hearing something approaching Jefferson’s infamous “firebell in the night” ringing without warning in my ears several days later, after a good deal of annealing spousal and self-administered therapy.
I started on this film adventure with teeth clenched in fear like Hansel and Gretel approaching the woods-cottage. As a public-service mental-health warning, I gently recount what followed. In the film, Dwight D. Eisenhower feared that, if he forced the integration of Little Rock Central High School, there would “be another civil war.” In fact, he had his reservations about the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision but did not mistake Orval Faubus (“just a po’ boy from Greasy Creek”) for Robert E. Lee, and did not need lessons from Sherman Adams on the need to uphold a Supreme Court order over the outright defiance of the governor of Arkansas.
The saccharine presentation of John F. Kennedy, coming on the heels of Richard Nixon’s distributing Nixon buttons in the White House kitchen, attacking JFK to the waiters and busboys there, and promising to take care of the White House staff if it voted for him in 1960, should not have surprised me, but it did. Nixon was brought up in a Quaker house where African-American school friends were invited home to dinner from school, a family that knew and tolerated no racial prejudices. Nixon warned Eisenhower of the dangers in the world of the United States’ being portrayed by the Communist powers as racist, and advocated a Republican effort on behalf of civil rights all his public career, while the Kennedys were completely indifferent to the issue until they saw its potential, morally and politically, sometime after JFK was inaugurated. It does nothing for John F. Kennedy, an attractive and popular president, though not one who in his brief term was able to accomplish a great deal, to portray him as a saint that he was not.