A Tale of Two Cities
Hollywood’s influence on politicians advances not inexorably but in cycles.

From the cover of The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, by Burton W. Peretti


But Nixon found himself more than evenly matched by the consummately cinematic John Kennedy, a man given to careful control of his public image, the “selection of hairstyling, clothing, and words, with an eye toward their impact on the most discerning social circles and press coverage.” More than just a skilled rhetorician, he was telegenic. One might think that he represented the apex of the cinematic presidency and that politicians ever afterward would attempt to model their own images on his precedent. They didn’t, as it turns out; as Peretti observes, Hollywood’s influence advances not inexorably but in cycles.

Many presidents who were fluid performers or careful managers of their presidential images nonetheless cared little for the fripperies of cinematic display. Lyndon Johnson clearly fits into that category. Or what of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter? Their inability to generate much frisson when on camera partly explains their failures to win reelection.

The Right found its great cinematic presidency not in aping Hollywood but in recruiting from it directly: Ronald Reagan once quipped, “There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you haven’t been an actor.” True to its erratic form, the American public, which supposedly finds the cinematic candidate irresistible, in the next primaries chose George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, two of the least glamorous presidential candidates since the Gilded Age.

Since then we have had the “Man from Hope,” the “Decider,” and “Hope” himself, but what have we learned? Clinton was another superlative performer and packager, buoyed at first by the Horatio Alger theme and Hollywood production values of his biographical convention film, The Man from Hope. George W. Bush proved effective at adopting a certain western imagery and occasionally striking a heroic pose during public moments, but beyond that he had little success in projecting a strong public persona. Barack Obama harnessed a massive iconography but in his public appearances is still plagued by his aloofness. Consider his performance in the first debate in the past campaign.

Failures by presidential candidates to project the right image can no longer be explained by their failure to take an interest in what cinema has to teach them: “Like other American men, future presidents [are] taught by lead movie actors how to look and behave, what to say, and how to say it,” Peretti points out. And “no monarch of the past could have pretended to be such a companion and confidant of the people.” Still, only occasionally do we elect a politician who is unusually adept at using to full advantage the incomparable seeming rapport that technology has made possible between the public figure and the public.

The similarities between politics and the entertainment industry are obvious and many. On this subject, Peretti quotes a man who ought to know — Jack Valenti, who served both as an aide to Lyndon Johnson and as the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America:

I have become convinced that movie people and politicians spring from the same DNA. They are both unpredictable, sometimes glamorous, usually in crisis (imagined or otherwise), addicted to power, anxious to please, always on stage, hooked on applause, enticed by publicity, always reading from scripts written by someone else, constantly taking the public pulse, never really certain, except publicly. Indeed, it’s difficult to say which deserves more the description of “entertainment capital of the world,” Hollywood or Washington, D.C.

I’ve never met an observer of contemporary politics who would deny any of this. However, the casting limit in Washington is eight years — and while we’re always assured there will be a new star eventually, there’s no telling quite when he or she will come along.

— Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn.