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.
The psychotic compulsion always to portray Richard Nixon as a thug of no redeeming characteristics or attainments (who in this case is claimed to have ordered the murder of the leaders of the Black Panther organization, which is complete piffle) would dishonor Hollywood, if that were possible. It is now generally recognized that Nixon was a very successful and distinguished president, and that there was only a very questionable basis for removing him from office, though he was in some respects a neurotic man and had some unattractive foibles. No possible purpose is served in presenting these Manichaean caricatures except to aggravate the contempt in which Hollywood is held by the overwhelming majority of people in the world who have any taste or recognition of the damage the American film industry does by its defamatory coarseness and myth-making and spurious distortion of American life and public policy. At least we were spared the usual cameo companion piece to the Nixon-demonization, of Henry Kissinger verbally abusing underlings while committing war crimes. By that point in the film, I was grateful for whatever relief could be found.
Only the most knowledgeable viewer would realize that LBJ had actually fought for and signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, as he appears in this film as an unfathomably boorish man who did nothing but cling to the pristine coattails of the Kennedys. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have the good fortune to appear in authentic newsreel segments in secondary roles, but Ronald Reagan, though portrayed as an amiable man — who, with his wife, invited the butler in question and his wife (the inevitable Oprah Winfrey) to a state dinner as guests — is also portrayed as a hag-ridden apologist for the apartheid white-supremacist regime of South Africa. He was nothing of the kind, but was not convinced that sanctions would assist in a solution by “making things better by making them worse.” The facts of the South African question are presented so as to make Reagan appear, despite his geriatric bonhomie, a tool of the racists, and in practice no better than the segregationists and murderers of the Black Panthers confected in previous Republican administrations.
The career of Eugene Allen, the real-life butler on whom Cecil Gaines is based, is quite dramatic and would easily sustain a full-length film without these monstrous distortions. And his views are very interesting. He gave an interview at the time of the election of Barack Obama, to a London newspaper, and explained that he liked all the presidents for whom he worked; that they were all courteous and considerate gentlemen, and that his politics were that he always voted for the president who employed him regardless of party and when there was no incumbent in the race (1952, 1960, 1968), his vote was a secret. He also said that next to the day of the assassination of President Kennedy, the saddest of all in his 35 years in the White House was the day of the resignation of Richard Nixon. Mr. Allen is obviously a fine man, discreet and thorough and well-disposed and exactly what one would hope for in such a role. His life is somewhat inspiring, whether the travails of his plantation youth are exaggerated, and whether he had a son who died in Vietnam or one who was a freedom rider, or not.
Oprah Winfrey is workmanlike as Mrs. Cecil Gaines. Other usual suspects are in the frame, including Harvey Weinstein — which prompts the question of why such accomplished people lend themselves to this bunk. There are now fairly frequent examinations of the Kennedys that present a fairly complete picture, including, but not overstating, some of that family’s less salubrious qualities and quirks. Balanced appraisals of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson are no longer hard to come by, and Nixon’s chief accusers, especially Woodward and Bernstein, have been pretty thoroughly discredited. The burning question is why Hollywood continues into its second half-century feeding and fattening these false impressions of modern American history. In olden times, the desire for happy endings and for heroes was understandable, although it led at times to unrigorous history. War propaganda — even such hilarious whitewashes of Stalin as Mission to Moscow — was always excusable in the greater cause. But as I pull myself together from post-flight shock, I cannot imagine what rationale there could be for inflicting such a farrago of falsehoods as this upon the world. Eugene Allen deserves better, and so do all the presidents whom he served.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].