Hollywood at the White House

Historian Burton Peretti examines how image-making affects American presidents and the public’s perception of these leading men.

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In the early days of television, when President Eisenhower needed advice, he didn't simply turn to policy and military experts. He also took cues from movie star and producer Robert Montgomery, the first presidential TV adviser, who helped coach Ike before public addresses and vastly improved staging and production in the White House. In his new book, The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton Peretti examines the relationship between the presidency and the film and television industries, as well as the effects on the cultural perception of American leaders. Peretti, a professor of history at Western Connecticut State University, recently spoke with U.S. News about some of history's most effective presidential leading men and how image-making has factored into the 2012 campaign. Excerpts:

What did you find striking about the relationship between Hollywood and the White House?

First of all, how complex it is. It's not simply presidents watching movies or Americans seeing presidents and movie stars on the same page in the newspaper. Everyone's looking at everyone else and interacting in a certain way, in different ways. And certainly the times were very dramatic, too. I mean, World War II, Vietnam, Watergate—all of those have an influence on the cinematic presidential image as well. I think every time has had a notion that politics is becoming increasingly superficial and obsessed with style, and what I find is that the obsession with style goes up and down. There are times when style is very important and other times when authenticity is very important.

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How has that ebb and flow played out?

In the 1990s you had a definitive cinematic presidential image with Bill Clinton—very much attracted to the traditional Hollywood leading man role, in some ways fulfilling it in his presidency. And then, especially after 9/11, in the 2000s, there seems to be a real confusion or questioning of that cinematic presidential image. George Bush's handlers, particularly Karl Rove, strove to give quite a Hollywood treatment to their leading man. But that was undercut almost immediately by the reality certainly of the Iraq War and the difficulties of the war on terror. And then Obama seems to be sort of a post-baby boomer who questions the whole authenticity, in some ways, of mass images. He seems to retreat from his celebrity role.

How would you characterize the images that were advanced by the Obama and Romney campaigns?

Not so much this campaign, but the last four years have seen a fascinating explosion of image-making, and I'm thinking right now of the Tea Party and the other very virulent anti-Obama imagery that's come out, which again is not really in the cinematic or Hollywood tradition. It's sort of from the bottom up. Mash-ups on the Internet, that sort of thing. For example, the Tea Party representation of Obama as the Joker from the Batman movie, the Heath Ledger Joker.

Does the idea of a presidential leading man mean the public should be any more skeptical of presidents acting?

There's been a rich debate about it or discourse about it now for I think 80 years, even longer. Essentially we've had this back and forth: should presidents exploit that to get something done, to attract more support, to excite the voters about what needs to be done; or should the president display authenticity? It's just gone and back and forth, almost dizzyingly at times. And behind that…there's been a general argument in America about authenticity—should people be themselves or should they project an outward façade for success?

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Who do you see as the most effective "leading man" of the 20th century?

I would have to probably make it a bit of tie between FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan. Roosevelt, out of necessity, had to play a whole man, essentially, as they would have said back in the '30s, to become president. John Kennedy was from, as I write, the generation that grew up with the movies. His father had been a film producer and Kennedy very early on became part of the social life in Hollywood, and was very attracted to it as a young man and into the 1940s and '50s. That was central to Kennedy and it was central to his self-presentation. And then Reagan, of course, was for decades an actor. In some ways, he was so experienced with it it was second nature to him to use those techniques.