In his new book The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton W. Peretti traces the ways 20th-century U.S. presidents developed and mastered a “cinematic brand of leadership,” turning the occupant of the Oval Office, whoever that might be, into a “lead actor”—the star, in fact—in the nation’s drama. “Despite the heightened cynicism and divisions in today's political culture, Americans of all persuasions perceive the president through the amorphous yet familiar cinematic image that has developed over the past century,” Peretti writes in the book’s introduction. “It is an image we must understand and critique if we are to understand our political culture more clearly, and if we are ever to come close to realizing effective and wise self-government.” Over the next three days, DG will run excerpts from chapter two of The Leading Man, focusing on the earliest presidents of the cinematic era: Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.
Whether he was politically strong or weak, a twentieth-century president benefited from the status he enjoyed in Washington society; the perception of the power of the office around his person; public relations, advertising, mass periodicals, radio, and the other machinery of modern celebrity; and the innovative example of Theodore Roosevelt, who infused his time in office with dramatic gestures, theatrical oratory, and evocations of aggressive masculinity.
The modern cult of personality, advanced by the theater and exploited by public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, reached its apogee in Hollywood’s crafting of its most charismatic leading actors and actresses. Much of the movies’ power derived from what early Hollywood producers and directors were fond of calling their “verisimilitude”—their apparent, ultimate success at turning real sights and sounds into art, using real people and real locations—the ideal to which realist literature, painting, the phonograph, radio, and even photography had separately aspired but could never reach.
The movies, though, also exploited fantasy, creating exaggerated visions of space, time, and personality that often pulled the medium away from realism. Motion pictures’ precarious straddling of both reality and escapism, interestingly enough, was roughly equivalent to Americans’ highly conflicted feelings about politics: leaders and voters alike simultaneously struggled to confront ugly realities and to pursue seemingly fantastic goals of national unity and harmony, with the voters often putting their faith in politicians who made unrealistic promises and ran on platforms of utopian change.
As the United States struggled through the Great Depression and fought World War II, presidents and motion picture actors fulfilled similar cultural roles and increasingly crossed paths in both work and play. The presidencies of Herbert Hoover (1929–1933) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933–1945) illustrate how the new cultural dominance of the movies affected the leisure activities of the chief executives, the business that came across their desks, and the evolving image of their office. Both men were inquisitive and alert students of their times, which brought economic distress and painful change to average Americans. Out of necessity, they looked to the movies for new tools and examples of leadership.
Mayer, like other founders of Hollywood, had traveled far in life. He left his native Ukraine in childhood, grew up in St. John, New Brunswick, and made an early living as a theater owner in Boston. In the 1920s, he was the head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM’s very name illustrated the merger mania among studios in the 1920s—a dynamic business situation that was certain to attract the attention of the Commerce Department. Mayer and Secretary Hoover assiduously cultivated each other’s loyalty. Mayer wrote Hoover in 1924 that he wished that all Americans “could know you intimately as you deserve to be known,” while the secretary of commerce assured the producer “that I have you in mind many times a day.”
As a Californian and as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the 1920s, just before he ascended to the White House, Herbert Hoover was well situated to witness the growth of the motion picture industry. Much of his perception of the industry was shaped by his close relationship with one of its most important early figures, Louis B. Mayer.
Mayer called on Hoover whenever he visited Washington, and Hoover reciprocated during his travels out west. During the 1928 campaign, Mayer sent MGM photographers up to Palo Alto, California, to take portraits of Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, at their home. In the days before Hoover’s election as president, one of his aides reported that Mayer, “unable to contain himself longer, called me up last night to ‘bubble over.’”
Even more than his immediate predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, Hoover found himself framed by the lens of the motion picture camera. During his years at Commerce Hoover’s background as a celebrated humanitarian had already made his image an appealing (and often unauthorized) element in advertisements. His presidential campaign in 1928 represented a major leap forward in the use of public relations techniques in marketing a presidential candidate. The campaign was also the first to make significant use of movie technology as a promotional tool. Prints of a silent biographical film entitled Master of Emergencies, produced by Hoover’s friend, the journalist Will Irwin, were made available for showings nationwide. “WHY WE SHOULD VOTE FOR HERBERT HOOVER TOLD IN TALKING MOTION PICTURES,” proclaimed a billboard on the side of a truck that brought the film to towns across the Midwest.
Autogiro lands at White House
Hoover’s White House aides were in regular contact with the newsreels, planning access to events featuring the president. They arranged, for example, to allow multiple newsreel services to cover Hoover’s attendance at the Thomas Edison birthday celebration in Dearborn, Michigan, organized by the public relations pioneer Edward Bernays. On another occasion the newsreels covered the landing of an autogyro on the White House lawn. Various organizations wrote to the president asking him to film greetings for their conclaves. Others proposed starring roles for Hoover in non-journalistic productions. One filmmaker requested his assistance in making a series of short films “that will glorify the United States President.” White House aides declined almost all requests for the president’s appearances in such filming, but they did agree to let Hoover appear in Paramount’s inaugural newsreel, and in 1932 they allowed a filmmaker to plan a documentary about the president’s daily routine (which apparently was never realized).
Text from The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, by Burton W. Peretti, Rutgers University Press 2012 and used with permission.
[Photos from Library of Congress. Video licensed from CriticalPast.com.]