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Gabriel Over the White House


A reader informs me that Gabriel Over the White House will be on TCM tonight.   Some of you might remember it from my book. Those of you who don’t, here’s an excerpt from it:

Like many other leading Americans, the media tycoon William
Randolph Hearst believed America needed a dictator. After first
backing the America Firster Jack Garner, he switched to FDR (and
claimed that he put Roosevelt over the top at the Democratic conven-
tion). Deciding that the best way to influence FDR—and the
American people—was via Hollywood, he personally reworked a
script based on the book Gabriel Over the White House, which be-
came a movie of the same name starring Walter Huston as President
Judd Hammond.

The propagandistic nature of the film cannot be exaggerated.
Hammond, a Hoover-like partisan hack of a president, has a car ac-
cident and is visited by the archangel Gabriel. When he recovers, he
is reborn with a religious fervor to do good for America. He fires his
entire cabinet—big-business lackeys all! Congress impeaches
Hammond, and in response he appears before a joint session to pro-
claim, “We need action—immediate and effective action.” After this
he suspends Congress, assuming the “temporary” power to make all
laws. He orders the formation of a new “Army of Construction” an-
swerable only to him, spends billions on one New Deal–like pro-
gram after another, and nationalizes the sale and manufacture of
alcohol. When he meets with resistance from gangsters, presumably
in league with his political enemies, he orders a military trial run by
his aide-de-camp. Immediately after the trial, the gangsters are lined
up against a wall behind the courthouse and executed. With that vic-
tory under his belt, Hammond goes on to bring about world peace by
threatening to destroy any nation that disobeys him—or reneges on
its debts to America. He dies of a heart attack at the end and is eulo-
gized as “one of the greatest presidents who ever lived.”

One of the project’s uncredited script doctors was the Democratic
presidential nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He took time off from
the campaign to read the script and suggested several important
changes that Hearst incorporated into the film. “I want to send you
this line to tell you how pleased I am with the changes you made in
‘Gabriel Over the White House,’” Roosevelt wrote a month into of-
fice. “I think it is an intensely interesting picture and should do much
to help.”

Ever since, Hollywood has been equally eager to help liberal
causes and politicians. The movie Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a
bighearted populist who is asked to impersonate a stricken (conser-
vative) president and engineers a socially conscious coup d’état, is
merely an updating of the same premise.