When it comes to choosing a film, US presidents are granted executive privilege. But do we learn from their film list?
John McCain told Entertainment Weekly that Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata was one of his favorite films. Obama picked The Godfather (both one and two), as well as Casablanca for his video cabinet choice. (Sarah Palin and Joe Biden have been mum so far on their cinematic predilections.) What can we glean from the film tastes of these presidential hopefuls? Does McCain’s self-appointed role as a maverick make him sympathize with the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s heroic fight against the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1910? Or do his conservative stripes show in his appreciation of director of Elia Zazan, who went before the Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities to name communist sympathizers soon after Viva Zapata was released? And what of Obama? Does his interest in Francis Ford Coppola’s study of power and criminality highlight the Senator’s fine appreciation of the Machiavellian nature of world politics? Or is he drawn to the smaller scale story of Michael Corleone, whose innocence and virtue is ultimately corrupted by power?
While pundits and the public have been fascinated by the film choices of presidents (and presidential hopefuls), it seems doubtful that one could build any sort of comprehensive political, cultural, or even cinematic history from the records of presidential movie going. But if scrutiny of cinematic taste doesn’t illuminate the national and foreign policy of different administrations, it does shine a small light into the private fantasies and imaginations of our most public figures.
While Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to appear on film, Woodrow Wilson began the tradition of White House screenings when in 1915 he invited D. W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan epic Birth of a Nation for a private showing. Wilson, a Southerner by birth, enthusiastically proclaimed afterwards, “It's like writing history with lightning.” That small quip became a marketing copy coup for the film’s producers and a stinging defeat for the recently formed NAACP, which was trying to stop the film. After Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, he found his ability to function starkly limited. For solace, he would take to seeing a new film at noon everyday in the East Room before retiring to rest.
Elected on the eve of the jazz era and modern times, the conservative president Warren G. Harding campaigned on the nostalgic promise “Return to Normalcy.” While Harding pressed his normal Ohioan style with his “Front Porch” campaign, he was extremely media savvy, plugging his popularity by getting film stars, like Al Jolson, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, to visit (and be photographed visiting) him in Marion, Ohio. Harding would often use films to entertain his guests after dinner. Overall he found a vision of stability and history in the movies he watched. He was very fond of James Cruze’s 1923 western The Covered Wagon, which he hosted in the White House before its release. His own director of the budget John Dawes, speaking for Harding as well, commended the filmmakers, “I think that you are trying to do a tremendous thing in making pictorial history. Today you can still make pictures which show the old West in an accurate form.” Harding died soon after its premiere.
Born of old New England puritan stock, Calvin Coolidge was a quiet, serious attorney who worked his slow way up the political ladder to become Vice President, only to land in the White House when Harding suddenly died. Aware of his stolid nature, especially in comparison to his bubbly wife, Grace, Coolidge once told Ethel Barrymore, "I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President and I think I will go along with them." A hands-off executive, even in most social policies, Coolidge seemed an odd national leader for the libertine rush of the roaring 20s. But in his love of movies, Silent Cal was right in step with the rest of the American population. The fanzine Film Classic listed him as “the first national executive to depend on motion pictures as his sole recreation.” Not only did he have his yacht, The Mayflower, fitted out for screenings, but he once brought down a 44-piece orchestra from New York to provide musical background for a screening. Indeed Coolidge could become so involved in a film that he once kept a welcome delegation waiting for over 20 minutes at Washington DC’s Union Station as he finished watching a western on the train. While Coolidge never registered a favorite film, his wife Grace was very fond of Valentino in The Sheik, but then what woman wasn’t?
Hoover to Roosevelt
While Hoover was not much of a film guy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, installing the first-floor White House screening room in 1942. In Celebrity-In-Chief, Alan Schroeder notes, “It was Franklin Roosevelt who first perceived the power of association waiting to be harnessed in Hollywood stars. FDR was prescient enough to recognize that in a democratic society, elected officials had much to gain by embracing the people’s choice.” As such Franklin -- and more often Eleanor -- Roosevelt, welcomed Hollywood royalty to the White House on a regular basis, paying special attention to publicly beloved figures such as Shirley Temple. Indeed Roosevelt’s birthday became a regular gathering of Hollywood luminaries, which later would lend their support to Roosevelt’s favorite charity The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. But while Roosevelt encouraged Hollywood, he was rarely photographed or mingled with them. That duty he left to Eleanor. But Roosevelt did set up friendly relations with studios heads, most notably Jack Warner of Warner Bros., whose films often soft pedaled his New Deal and later military objectives.
In the 1938 edition of Photoplay, Eleanor Roosevelt explains, “Why we Roosevelts are Movie Fans,” by noting “The president never has an evening of his own planning without at least one Mickey Mouse film.” On the record, he listed another Disney animation, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as his favorite film. Privately he had a thing for Myrna Loy and expressed a love of Mae West’s I’m No Angel. Always civic minded, Eleanor praised The Life of Emile Zola, as an important historical story that was “well acted by Paul Muni.”
Harry S. Truman
The plain-speaking Harry S. Truman was not one for the movies, although his wife Bess loved them. She reportedly watched The Scarlet Pimpernel some 20 times. When Truman did take in a movie, he stuck with all American fare, such as Capra comedies and westerns. When asked, Truman often mentioned John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, starring another plain speaker, Henry Fonda, as his favorite.
While the Democrat Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, was a Republican, the two shared an affinity for westerns. In 1959, Eisenhower explained to Nikita Khrushchev his love of the genre: “I know they don’t have any substance to them and don’t require any thought to appreciate, but they always have a lot of fancy tricks. Also, I like horses.” By far his favorite western was High Noon, whose stark individual courage and refusal to back down was often read as allegory of the Cold War. While Eisenhower could watch any western, he would get up and walk out of the room when ever Robert Mitchum came on the screen, supposedly because he could never forgive the actor for being arrested for possession of marijuana.
John F. Kennedy
For many, John F. Kennedy brought Hollywood glamour to the White House. In Jackie under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum chronicles how Jackie O. rivaled Elizabeth Taylor for placement in fan magazines, even though she herself was not an actress. But while the presidential couple surrounded themselves with Hollywood royalty, and seemed as alluring as any screen lovers, John Kennedy found it difficult to sit through movies because of an old war injury. When he did suffer through a film, his tastes tended towards dramas of heroic individuals standing up for what was right, even when such a stance could spell certain doom. For Kennedy, films like Red River, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Casablanca were at the top of his list. But Kennedy also loved the spectacle of film. Sources later revealed that when a 70mm print of Spartacus, a format that the White House screening room could not accommodate, was playing in downtown Washington, Kennedy snuck out with Secret Service agents in tow to catch a late night screening.
Kennedy’s successor, president Lyndon Johnson was perhaps as far from projecting a movie star image as any president to date. While politically savvy and remarkably adept in a legislative environment, Johnson was famously uncomfortable with the Ivy League upper-crust advisors who surrounded him. Generally speaking, Johnson did not go in for glamour or movies. But Paul Fischer, the official White House projectionist, revealed that there was one film Johnson watched over and over again—a 10-minute homage to the president narrated by Gregory Peck. Since this short was Johnson’s most requested film, Fischer later joked that “LBJ was his own favorite movie star.”
Nixon, on the other hand, found courage in the image of others. The week before he ordered the secret war on Cambodia, Nixon and his aides watched Patton, the flag-waving biopic about the cantankerous World War II general. Nixon named Patton as his favorite film, and would watch it often. But unlike other presidents who used the White House movie theater as a place to relax with family or schmooze world leaders, Nixon would wait to watch Patton and other films with Miami pal Charles "Bebe" Rebozo, who enjoyed over 150 screenings with the President. Having to patch a nation torn asunder by Nixon’s machinations, Gerald Ford tended to love comedies—even as Saturday Night Live turned the athletic president into a comic figure.
Surprisingly the Georgian farmer and born-again Baptist Jimmy Carter turned out not only to be the most film friendly president, he also brought the first X-rated film (Midnight Cowboy) into the White House. Carter was on record as screening over 480 features during his four years, including All The President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s recreation of Nixon’s unraveling, just two days after his inauguration. But when pushed his for favorite film, Carter would often fall back on his Southern roots by naming Gone with the Wind.
With the election of a real movie star, Ronald Regan, to the Presidency, some believed that film culture had arrived. Others feared that Regan would fail to make the distinction between film and politics. In Ronald Regan, the Movie, Michael Paul Rogin traces a strange fusing of identities between the actor and man, where Regan “found out who he was through the roles he played on film….The confusion between life and film produced Ronald Regan, the image that has fixed our gaze.” Indeed Reagan would often bring up what he had seen the night before as a launching pad to discuss world politics. In promoting his Star Wars Initiative (already a movie reference), Regan would often fall back on the plot of his own 1940 thriller Murder in the Air in which he must protect the Defense Department’s top-secret Inertia Projector, a weapon system that would destroy all incoming enemy missiles.
For the most part, Regan did not watch many movies at the White House. Of the 344 films the Reagans watched, only twelve were screened in Washington. Instead, he liked to retreat to Camp David, reliving the glory days of Hollywood. He preferred films with Jimmy Stewart, holding up It’s A Wonderful Life as a personal favorite.
Bush to Clinton
While the first president Bush had little to say about film, his successor William Jefferson Clinton was remarkably knowledgeable, even going on television to talk film with Roger Ebert. On leaving office, Clinton quipped, “The best perk out in the White House is not Air Force One or Camp David or anything else. It's the wonderful movie theatre I get here.” He often championed new works like Fight Club and American Beauty, but his favorite was High Noon, a film he saw no less than 20 times. “'It's a movie about courage in the face of fear and the guy doing what he thought was right in spite of the fact that it could cost him everything,” Clinton told Dan Rather. While this is a sentiment most presidents must feel, it was one that faced Clinton more and more in his second term when he had was opposed by an entrenched Republican Congress and shrouded in a sex scandal, even as he continued to push for to make America part of the world community with a comprehensive test ban and economic globalization.
George W. Bush
President Bush, who also named High Noon as one of his favorites, once used the film’s plot as a way to push his foreign policy on Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi. “Gary Cooper fought a lonely battle against a gang,” Bush explains, “but this time the whole world stands with the United States." But whether the world did or didn’t, Bush made it clear on many occasions that the U.S. would pursue its own course, regardless of international opinion. Bush also used films to instill his values. Irv Letofsky, who worked on the documentary All the Presidents’ Movies, remembers that Bush had a screening of Black Hawk Down for “some of his top-level military people and there's a point in the movie when we can't or don't send anyone in to rescue the downed fighters. George Bush, at the end of the screening, said: 'I would never do that,'" Yet despite such bravado, cowboy politics, and American heroics, Bush’s favorite film is a baseball fantasy Field of Dreams, a sentimental tale about a Midwesterner (Kevin Costner) plagued by voices and the ghosts of old baseball stars. It’s hard to say if this appeals to Bush’s time as the owner of Texas Rangers baseball team or to the film’s courageous validation of a man everyone thinks is crazy.