Presidents in the Movies

Each president is different.  In their own way, each has impacted the office.  What may be an accurate theatrical representation of one president will differ greatly from another and both may be right or wrong.  In recent years, the office has become forced into a more consistent template, this because of the demands of security and technology.

Almost any movie or tv portrayal of a president is flawed.  but some are more accurate than others.  West Wing had some accurate moments.  Although the constant rushing about – shuffling paper – and the extra large, movie set offices were far-fetched and distracting.  The open, team oriented president is also unlikely.  Presidents quickly become corrupted and become more private.  Because of the nature of the office, all of them become isolated.  This leads to moments like Katrina for George W. Bush and Paris for Obama.  These are moments when presidents lose touch with reality.
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Some movies are literally scripted by history.  Oliver Stone’s W used many historical events and real life conversations, with some very notable exceptions. (They had Karl Rove advising GWB back in the 80’s.  I never saw Karl or even heard of him back them and was with GWB almost every day.)  But even with accurate conversations the movie still managed to portray GWB as “the dummy” characterized by Saturday Night Live, which was inaccurate.  I guess you would call that art mimicking art. Ha.
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The movie Lincoln also stuck to real events recorded by history and like a good newspaper editor, they didn’t use a conversation unless confirmed by more than one source.  The exception were the private conversations between Abe and Mary, which only Mary gives us in her recollections.
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It was a great movie that was ruined by one stark, totally unnecessary, inaccurate scene at the very beginning.  Lincoln is sitting with soldiers, black and white and they are reciting back to him the Gettysburg Address.  I promise you that nothing like that ever happened.  It would be like someone reciting back to President Obama or Reagan a speech they had just given a few months before.  At that time in history, no one memorized the Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln, himself, could not have quoted his own Gettysburg Address, let alone soldiers in his army.
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Kevin Costner played in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days.  He was a special assistant to the president. The portrayal  of this character was too confident, too relaxed, to glib in the president’s presence.  He was the hero, not JFK.  In fact, a presidential assistant is in constant danger of the machinations of other staffers.  If he was anything other than servile and deferential to the president he would be gone fast.
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 Movie producers almost always underestimate the power of the president’s celebrity.  No one but the president can be the center of attention.  He dominates the room.  Every room.  And almost every conversation.
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Depictions of the sycophants around the president are almost always poorly done.  They are subtle and accomplished beyond anything one sees in the office or the corporate world.
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The most accurate theatrical moments, to me, have been in the House of Cards because they have captured the art of politics at work.  I have literally put the show on pause and told my children stories from real life that mimic exactly what is going on. The only thing that is different from real life, is that all of the players, not just Frank and Claire Underwood, can likewise be manipulative. (And, of course, presidents don’t personally commit murder.)  Picture the White House with 100 Frank and Claire Underwoods on staff and you get a little idea of what life is like there.
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And in the House of Cards, the media is often seen as the victim when they are just as likely the predator as the politician.
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Presidents of the nation, like presidents of corporations, never have to say what they want or spell it out.  Although, comically, sometimes it happens like the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was wiretapped speculating on the sale of appointing a new Senator.  The staff is competing to please them and anticipating what they want.  The president can grunt or groan or role his eyes or sometimes just remain silent and wait and his staff will figure out what he wants.  And sometimes they will do it without his knowledge to protect him.  And they will all use lofty language, the good of the people, the nation comes first, etc.
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Power corrupts.
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Finally.  The best, recent, presidential movie, the most accurate from history, IMHO, is probably Hyde Park on the Hudson, starring Bill Murray.  It was a small but complicated piece of neglected history that I had been researching and it was done exceptionally well.  Historians, spoon fed from the FDR propaganda machine have usually portrayed him as sexually impotent. We now know better.
PostScript:  This blog was written before the third season of House of Cards in which the accuracy of life in the White House, especially the role of the Chief of Staff, was very much diminished.  It’s too bad.  That was a good part of its charm.  The theatrical appeal of the series is still somewhat compelling but the producers clearly decided to save some money by cutting much needed input from real live participants who have “been there and done that.”  The author of the original British series, who took great pains to get it right, was probably horrified.
Doug Wead presidential historian

Doug Wead

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6 Responses to Presidents in the Movies

  1. JustMeMike says:

    Nice post sir.

    I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of Lyndon B Johnson and the recent portrayal of him by the British actor Tom Wilkinson in the film Selma. . I imagine in 1965 you were likely newly installed in a college somewhere and politics were not paramount on your mind.

    At least not yet.

    Just wondering if your Presidential studies later in life gave you any insights that you’d like to share about LBJ – especially since DuVernay’s film Selma has caused some public hand wringing over the the way that Johnson was portrayed in the film..

    • Doug Wead says:

      Actually, I am taking my time on that subject, reading what I find and reviewing some of the good books previously written. There is a lot as you know. What are your thoughts?

  2. pad804 says:

    Kevin Costner didn’t play a special assistant to the president in Oliver Stone’s JFK, he played that role in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days.

  3. Surfisher says:

    Time to Impeach Obama — and save our Nation!

    Thomas Jefferson said it best:
    “The two enemies of the people are Criminals and Government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.”–— and that’s what Obama has become, the Legalized Criminal of our nation!

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