Hand-wringing over Hollywood’s failure to mint a new “leading man” is a regular feature of movie criticism. Where is that next warhorse capable of “carrying a picture” in the fashion of a George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, or Bruce Willis? Take a look at, say, any Vanity Fair Hollywood issue from the past ten years, and you’ll find familiar names but hardly anyone who exerts the sort of primal box-office force that a somewhat older generation of actors can. Fortunately for Hollywood, there are no term limits for actors. In the absence of a new generation, the movies simply turn to last decade’s model.
Not so with the presidency. We might still hear from Bill Clinton on occasion, but his name has been absent from the marquee for some time now. As Burton W. Peretti posits in his intriguing new book The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, the self-promotion and self-fashioning that define the movie industry are increasingly found in the presidency, but it is still only now and then that an individual political star emerges who melds the spirit of Hollywood with the spirit of Washington, D.C.
For Peretti, the repeated triumph of style over substance in politics is clearly regrettable, as he explains with nods to Daniel J. Boorstin, Christopher Lasch, and the whole panoply of justifiably depressive cultural critics. But while Peretti concedes that cinema has intensified the possibilities for shallowness, it’s impossible to pretend that celebrity — the process of image-making — was unknown to politics before the age of 24 frames per second. “With respect to the United States it is difficult to find a past golden era in which rational speech dominated and in which irrational depictions of leaders and issues did not warp political culture,” Peretti writes. Choose your own anecdote about candidate X’s being bought and paid for by Whig saloonkeepers who had one hand on the flask and the other in your pocket.
Cinema may take a bright candidate and enhance his sheen with Technicolor, or it may deepen the shadows cast by a demagogue, but it doesn’t create those characters. Nor does it inevitably cast all presidential aspirants into such simple roles. It may be plausible to explain Kennedy or Nixon in terms of cinema celebrity, but what about Carter or George H. W. Bush? Or Romney or Obama?
Step back for a moment. The links between cinema and the presidency likely date from earlier than you imagined. Studio-boss extraordinaire Louis B. Mayer (you remember him from The Aviator and Mommie Dearest) was a good friend of Herbert Hoover, a movie fan. William H. Hays, of Hays Code fame, was postmaster general during the Harding administration before he went west to ensure that movies didn’t become too fun.
In fact, the pioneering cinematic presidency was Franklin Roosevelt’s, when the medium was still nascent. Roosevelt was heard rather than seen in his fireside chats and other radio events, but when he was seen, careful mise-en-scènes intended to disguise his reliance on a wheelchair drew on photographic expertise and older, simple traditions of stage setting. Cinema obviously integrates rhetoric, to which radio lent itself, and the power of the image as captured earlier by photography.
Then there was Eisenhower, no one’s idea of a fluid public speaker, who received help from actor Robert Montgomery when it came to lighting, make-up, attire, the heights of cameras and lecterns, and the question of how much the president should smile during addresses. By contrast, Richard Nixon was an experienced actor, having appeared in every production at Whittier College during his undergraduate years. In his career as a public official, he had two breakout improvisational successes: the Checkers speech and the “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev. Props were clearly present (Checkers, Pat Nixon, Khrushchev, a box of SOS), but it was the force of Nixon’s performance that carried both occasions.
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.