Hollywood Presidents

April 10, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: With all the Hollywood flash, who would guess that these celebrities at a movie premier are about to observe the latest in a series of pop studies of the American political system?

ACTRESS: (in “Primary Colors”) Jack Stanton could also be a great man if he weren’t such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined–

JOHN TRAVOLTA: (in “Primary Colors”) Honey, why are you making such a big deal?

ACTRESS: Because it is big!

SPENCER MICHELS: Jack Stanton is the presidential candidate in “Primary Colors.” Played by John Travolta, he bears an uncanny resemblance to President Clinton and the story does too.

JOHN TRAVOLTA: (in “Primary Colors” ) I’m going to do something really outrageous. I’m going to tell the truth.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stanton has weaknesses as a candidate, including an alleged affair, a potential paternity suit, and a proclivity for doughnuts. In another new film, “Wag the Dog,” the fictional president has some of the same problems.

SPOKESMAN: (“Wag the Dog”) There’s a crisis in the White House. And the President’s good advisers have been called together.

SPOKESPERSON: (“Wag the Dog”) The sexual misconduct occurred inside the Oval Office, with the election only days away. How much will the scandal affect the outcome?

SPENCER MICHELS: This time it’s a sex scandal with a young girl that dominates the story line. In this film the president’s spin doctor, that’s Robert DeNiro, teams up with a Hollywood producer played by Dustin Hoffman.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: You want me to produce your war?

SPENCER MICHELS: Together, they concoct a phony war in Albania to divert public opinion from the president’s personal life. And then there was “Dave,” a 1993 film, another variation on the theme.

SPOKESMAN: Dave Kovich was an ordinary guy–

ACTOR: Mr. Kovich, we need your help.

SPOKESMAN: –who just happened to look like the president.

ACTOR: You’re a very handsome man.

ACTOR: Thank you, Mr. President.

SPENCER MICHELS: In this farce the president falls into a coma, and Dave, a look-a-like played by actor Kevin Kline, stands in for him, quickly wins the public’s confidence because of his common touch.

SPOKESMAN: The amazing thing is everyone loves him.

SPENCER MICHELS: Everyone also likes Harrison Ford as the president in “Air Force One.” Here’s a chief executive who faces murderous terrorists on his plane and takes matters into his own hands, risking his life and behaving very unpresidentially. In another fantasy, “The American President,” Michael Douglas plays a widowed chief executive who becomes romantically involved with a lobbyist.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (“The American President”) Would you like to dance?

ACTRESS: Yeah, I guess. I mean, yes, sir, I’d love to.

SPENCER MICHELS: The tryst could be politically devastating, as they both realize.

ACTRESS: This has catastrophe written all over it.

SPENCER MICHELS: But here the president is single, the lobbyist is attractive, and both are politically correct environmentalists. And so there’s a flower-filled happy ending.

ACTRESS: How did you finally do it?


ACTRESS: Manage to give a woman flowers and be president at the same time?

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Well, it turns out I’ve got a rose garden.

SPENCER MICHELS: As in most of these films, the president comes up smelling like roses.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That report was narrated by Spencer Michels. And now we go to Phil Ponce for the discussion.

PHIL PONCE: Now, the presidency in the movies as seen by NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and author/journalist Haynes Johnson. And joining them tonight is Robert Sklar, professor of cinema studies at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. And welcome, everybody. Professor Sklar, we just saw some clips of recent movies pertaining to the presidency. Give us the big picture of how the–how the movies in general have treated the president.

ROBERT SKLAR, New York University: Well, there have been presidents on screens since the early days of the silent films, but there’s been a big change in the last few years. In the Roosevelt administration, for example, you really couldn’t see the president on screen. But beginning, let’s say, with the rise of television, presidents became more and more visible in public life and also in the movies.

PHIL PONCE: So are you saying that in the early movies the presidents were, what, so venerated that they were just, their presence was just suggested?

ROBERT SKLAR: Well, it’s the same thing as Roosevelt’s press conferences were never on radio; they were–his words were never directly quoted in the 30’s, so in the movies you had to see him from the side or from the back or in shadow if you had the real president. There were also fictional presidents then of course.

PHIL PONCE: As far as the attitude that movies took toward the presidency, would you say that–would you say that early on there was respect and now it’s become, what, a lot more informal, a lot more casual, presidents are a lot more “human?”

ROBERT SKLAR: Well, the big change in some ways came with “Dr. Strangelove” in 1964. That’s the film where Peter Sellers played three characters, one of whom was a president named Merkin Muffly. And, of course, he couldn’t prevent the world from coming to end in nuclear holocaust, so that presented a dilemma for the president that was both funny and terrible.

PHIL PONCE: And so what has emanated from “Dr. Strangelove” as far as how presidents are treated on the screen?

ROBERT SKLAR: Well, since then, presidents have become more and more involved in celebrity culture and they’re seen more and more on television, and we want to know more about their private lives and they–the press is giving the public more about the president’s private lives, so the movies are taking a cue from that and are–they no longer treat the president with a kind of respect and reverence that might have been the case a generation or two ago.

PHIL PONCE: Doris, do you agree with that?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, absolutely. I mean, when you look back at some of those early movies, they were really idealized versions of the president.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois, for example, presented a portrait of Lincoln as if he didn’t even like politics, that somehow he was above politics and has to be pushed into the political realm by two women. Of course, they were the ones with all the energy, Mary Todd Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. And they even had Lincoln saying at some point, I don’t really want to be a politician, as if somehow there was something wrong about being a politician. Obviously, “Sunrise at Campobello” portrays a very courageous moment in Roosevelt’s life by the battle with polio.

And the “PT-109″ film about JFK was really a propaganda film showing him in the water with his PT-109 buddies, and somehow they’re about ready to give up in despair. There are 15,000 enemy around, and he says to them, “Don’t worry, I believe we’ll make it. The odds are with us. It’s a flaw in my character to believe that we can make it.” Now, we look at the flaws in the characters, and I think it’s a whole attitude toward the presidents that’s become in some ways healthily more understanding.

I mean, “Primary Colors” shows politics as a positive thing, not necessarily something to be moved away from. But, obviously, that whole spate of movies, “1600 at Pennsylvania Avenue,” and murders taking place in the White House would have been inconceivable, I think, even thirty to forty years ago.

PHIL PONCE: Haynes, why do you think there’s been this change? What has changed in the culture maybe that has tapped into this?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, it’s just what Doris has been saying. I mean, this is an absolute reflection of the culture. I mean, you go back to–the Professor mentioned “Dr. Strangelove and How I Learned to Love the Bomb” in the Vietnam period, and that’s when Americans, we were beginning to become cynical about power, problems in the country, and the movie since then perfectly reflect the culture, meaning after “Primary Cultures,” which is a stunning–I don’t know whether art imitates life or life imitates art in this case but it really does.

But the other thing is, you know, Americans in the very beginning, we were great nitpickers. I mean, George Washington never cut down that–you know, he couldn’t tell a lie. And Abe Lincoln was suffering alone and by candlelight, and that’s the way we made these people into great mythological figures. That’s not the case now. They are much, much more ambivalent, ridden with problems, and as we see.

PHIL PONCE: Why not? Why no longer mythological figures, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Because people are very skeptical of presidents, as they have been since the 1960’s and 1970’s, a lot of disappointments about Vietnam and Watergate. Now presidents are to a great degree guilty until proven innocent, we’re much more likely to see them as small figures who are overwhelmed with human frailty than the opposite figures that we saw in the film on Lincoln or one of my favorites, which is “Wilson,” with Alexander Knox in 1944.

Wilson was a rather wooden figure. What that was, was the story of Wilson fighting for the League of Nations and failing. And Franklin Roosevelt actually–it’s a little bit like the 1990’s–got people on the White House staff to go out and tell people to see Wilson.

They encouraged the reception for that film because Roosevelt figured that the next year he would have to fight for the United Nations, and if you had this film showing that Wilson was doing a noble thing and had failed and the result of the failure was a bad thing, Roosevelt felt that that would help him politically. One little addendum we were talking about–PT-109 earlier, it’s sometimes forgotten that the studio’s first choice to play John Kennedy on PT-109 was Warren Beatty, not Cliff Robertson, but John Kennedy actually overruled it. He was worried that Beatty had too much of a rakish reputation.

PHIL PONCE: And speaking of a rakish reputation, a long way from “Wilson,” the movie in the 1940’s, to “Primary Colors,” Professor Sklar, what was your take on “Primary Colors?”

ROBERT SKLAR: Well, I thought it was a comedy for about the first half of the film, a kind of satire of those–that campaign in ’92. But then it changed its mood and got more and more serious. And at the end I was wondering about the difference between the theme of idealism and the theme of realism or “realpolitik” that comes up in the final scene, which side the film comes down on.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, what’s interesting is to compare “Primary Colors” with “All the President’s Men,” because “All the President’s Men” in a certain sense idealized journalism. The investigative heroes, Woodward and Bernstein, were the heroes in that movie.

In “Primary Colors” it’s really also about journalism, not simply about politics, and the journalists are horrible in some ways in “Primary Politics,” so it shows that our attitude toward journalism has changed as well. You also can compare it with “All the King’s Men,” where everything was larger in a certain sense. Huey Long’s figure was much more evil than the Clinton figure.

But, on the other hand, he was doing great things. He built hospitals. He built schools. So that argument that the “All the King’s Men” made, which was that you have to have evil to have good, which is made in smaller version in “Primary Colors,” is all on a smaller scale.

The whole movie is on a smaller scale. The only other thing that’s interesting is I saw a preview the other day of “Bulwark,” Warren Beatty, speaking of his new film. It is much more hard hitting about politics because it has this guy speaking the truth about corporate power. It’s really, really interesting.

PHIL PONCE: Haynes, you alluded to “Primary Colors” earlier, but what do you think its impact is going to be?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think anybody who watches the film, No. 3 now at the box office, even though Hollywood is groaning about it’s not enough profits, there’s always a scam there, how much does it take to make a great hit, but you can’t watch it, I think, without being struck with the absolute similarity to what we’re going through right now. I mean, it’s eery this was made before Monica Lewinsky.

And Doris is right about the press looking terrible, and it looks terrible now. It’s right about the spin doctors and the lying and the lust and all of these things. And you watch it, you say, is this real, or is it not, and you think it is real, and this is–it does have an impact on people, no question about it.

PHIL PONCE: Michael, do you think a movie about a president or the presidency can impact the way people feel about that office?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, can affect the way that they feel about the office and also about the president. I think there’s a very good chance that Americans for the next 20 years could very well think of Bill Clinton in terms of “Primary Colors” because it is so powerful, just as we think of–or not “we” but many Americans think of the Kennedy assassination in terms of Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” It’s going to be very hard to Clinton to overcome.

And I think later on future generations might look at this and ask, you know, one question, which is: Is this true in its portrayal of politics in the 90’s, as a killing, bruising business, and anyone who runs for president has to do all sorts of things to slither his way through, or is this something that really tells more about Bill Clinton than it does about the political culture? It’s hard to see that now. Twenty years from now I think the answer will be clear.

PHIL PONCE: Following up on that, Doris, do these recent movies that sort of humanize the presidents, show the president, warts and all, does that have the–do they have the capacity to damage the presidency?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think they, along with everything else that’s gone on in these last decades really, has weakened and diminished the presidency. Less distance that we feel toward our president–maybe some people might argue and maybe even I would in some moods, that it’s a healthy thing to see him as a human being.

But, on the other hand, you know, it’s interesting to compare “Fail Safe” in 1964, where the president gives up his wife and children, allowing them to be killed in New York, along with a nuclear attack, in order to save the entire world from a nuclear explosion. In “Air Force One” there was no way that the Harrison Ford figure could give up his wife and daughter. I’m not sure the culture would have accepted that. So we like the guy better maybe but did we feel the same awe? Do we feel his authority? Do we feel respect?

Respect demands a certain kind of idealization and a distancing even. And I think we’ve lost that not only because of the movies but because of the whole way the media treats the president nowadays, and I worry that if we needed to do something as a nation, I’m not sure we feel that sense of authority coming from a presidency.

PHIL PONCE: And why is that? What is the connect between authority and the possible diminishing of authority in the movies?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it’s even interesting going back to George Washington, which was mentioned earlier. When Parson Weems brought that popular culture book in which he claimed that George Washington said I’ll never tell a lie, which wasn’t true, he felt that the country couldn’t stay together unless it idealized its president.

Now, we’ve obviously come a long way from that. But to another extent maybe we can’t follow a leader unless there’s some measure of belief and trustworthiness in that leader, and to the extent that not only the movies but our popular culture is demeaning that day by day, we’re losing some sense of that resonance, I think.

PHIL PONCE: Professor Sklar, this was alluded to earlier, but what was the expectation of “Primary Colors” in Hollywood as far as how well it “should have done?”

ROBERT SKLAR: Well, I think it’s doing pretty well. Certainly, “Titanic” has set new standards for how well a movie should do, but it’s a tough thing now. You have so much new information coming out in the newspapers that the 1992 campaign seems almost like ancient history for this film to go over.

PHIL PONCE: But, generally speaking, how well do political movies do?

ROBERT SKLAR: Well, it depends. “Wag the Dog” has done pretty well. And you go back to “All the President’s Men,” or “JFK,” they did well. They were certainly tied to important issues in politics. Whether or not “Primary Colors” seems important anymore or whether it raises issues for us that are important might be a question. The audience I saw the film with applauded at the end, which was quite a surprise to me.

PHIL PONCE: Well, that’s all the time we have for now. Thank you all very much.