In his new book, The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton Peretti ’82 explores how Tinseltown and the U.S. presidency are sometimes strange, sometimes highly compatible bedfellows that build a relationship based on mass communication.
“It may seem surprising to claim that a president or other politician could cross over to the fantasy world of the movies, but it has happened,” Peretti writes in his introduction. “Such transformations have, in fact, been a major development in American political history.”
So did Hollywood seek out presidents or did presidents seek out Hollywood? Peretti says the answer is yes and yes. The attraction was mutual. “Presidents were fascinated by the cultural power wielded by the movies, while moviemakers were drawn to the dramatic realm of power in the real world,” says Peretti.
With most of his work focusing on 20th century politics, culture and music, Peretti’s previous books include Lift Every Voice: the History of African American Music and Jazz in American Culture. After writing Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan, looking at how local politicians became enamored with the city’s 1920s nightlife, he was asked to follow up with a book on American culture since 1945. Peretti instead found himself drawn even prior to that era, and specifically to the relationship between show business and the White House.
Peretti traces the beginning of the romance to the 1920s, when presidents were as star-struck as ordinary Americans, and movie stars and studios sought out appearances at the side of the executive-in-chief and to influence legislation favorable to Tinseltown on issues such as tax rates and antitrust regulation. It was the beginning of a friendship with benefits.
Some of those benefits to presidents were studio-style advice and movie review-like critiques. In the early days of television, Presidents Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower received letters criticizing their on-camera styles. To polish up, Eisenhower recruited movie actor Robert Montgomery as a consultant who changed the president’s posture, wardrobe, gestures and pace ofspeaking, Peretti says.
Peretti considers John F. Kennedy the paragon, the real golden boy, burnished in part by his father’s brief stint as a Hollywood producer and his contacts in the industry. “Kennedy drew on his experience socializing in Hollywood to look, dress and move like a movie idol. He carefully posed for photos and worked at displaying a casual style at televised press conferences,” says Peretti.
He cites the recollection of Princess Grace of Monaco, the former film star Grace Kelly, after Kennedy’s assassination: “He was almost too good to be true—he was just like the All-American boy, wasn’t he? Handsome, a fighter, witty, full of charm.”
But not everyone was quite as taken with him. Losing in 1960, Richard Nixon found Kennedy’s resemblance to and reception as a movie star was a thorn in his side, one that fed Nixon’s obsession with his own portrayal and led to him hiring numerous media consultants. “He was more concerned about his image than any other president, but it did him little good,” says Peretti, a former professor at Western Connecticut State University, soon to start a new role as dean of liberal arts at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus.
If Kennedy is the best and most glamorous pick and Nixon the worst, Ronald Reagan might be the most obvious. Thirty years spent in TV and film cultivated Reagan’s effortless mien in front of cameras, and perhaps buffed his quick wit. Like Kennedy, Reagan understood that success as a mass media politician required a movie-star-like touch, Peretti says.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, where President Obama’s approach to Hollywood is a bit more complicated. In both elections President Obama garnered glitterati show-biz supporters like Béyonce, Scarlett Johansson and studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Actor Kal Penn was appointed as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. But when it comes to style, Peretti says Obama has been a somewhat ambiguous case in terms of Hollywood influence.
“In 2008 [Obama] seemed to channel the public’s mistrust of blatant media manipulation by the president, in the wake of George W. Bush’s posturing as a Navy flyboy and ideal commander-in-chief. Obama balanced his charisma before audiences with a diffident speaking style that seemed to reject Hollywood effects.”
However, if Obama is distancing himself, Peretti notes that—on the other side of the White House bed—First Lady Michelle Obama has embraced a celebrity persona in many ways, including appearances on the Oscars and the cover of Vogue.
Currently, and even more so in the future, Peretti sees less cinematic grandeur and more scrutiny of stars and presidents. Twentyfour- hour news cycles and social media reveal public figures as human, fallible and could possibly make presidents seem insignificant, he says. But the interplay between cinema and the highest office in the land still retains some of its magic. And, Peretti argues, the subject tells us a lot about who we are as a people, showing us “how we balance our civic life with a rich and disruptive dream life, epitomized by the movies.”