Print Reviews

Hollywood’s White House

by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, editors.

University Press Of Kentucky


Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor have prepared a sort of companion volume to their American Presidency As Television Drama, previously reviewed on this site. While that book focused on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, this series of 23 essays looks at presidents and the presidency through the wider lens of film – and to a lesser extent television – from the ’30s through the year 2000. It shows how both wish fulfillment and reflection go into the representations of our presidents fictitious and real.

“Perhaps the lack of a Teddy Roosevelt ‘take charge type’ among recent presidents made it seem necessary for producers to create a fictional one,” the editors write in their introduction. It’s unclear, however, if they meant for readers to draw what seems to me an obvious inference when they add, just one line later, “George W. Bush, since the World Trade Center disaster on 11 September 2001, has stepped forward as a dynamic leader.” That inference being, to one of my politics at least, that at times when we desperately need such a hero in office, in the absence of a real one we’ll see what is not there. In “Who’s In Charge Here?” Robert E. Hunter seems to support this when he speaks of “the tendency of Americans to expect comfort and guidance from their president.”

Indeed much of the book resonates with politics today. In “A Juxtaposition Of Conflicting Images,” Jaap Kooijman argues that “the television coverage of Chicago 1968 established the conflicting visual connection between the image of an allegedly carefree vice President and the harsh images of chaos, disorder and violence resulting from presidential politics – a connection that can still be found in television coverage today.” It’s all too easy, reading this, to recall images of Dick Cheney saying “all is well” on CNN, while in split screen next to him Iraq burns.

In “Hollywood, Impersonation, And Presidential Celebrity,” David Haven Blake asserts that when the first Bush administration invited Bush impersonator Dana Carvey to a public audience with the president, “[t]he event promised only political gains for the notoriously patrician Bush, who came off appearing slightly less defensive and slightly more populist than he had in his loss to Bill Clinton.” But it is hard to know just what gains Blake thinks a president who has already lost his job could have made from Carvey’s White House visit. Not to say extending such an invitation before the election would have brought him victory, but like chicken soup for a corpse, it couldn’t hoit. Like one or two other essays, this one falls prey to the dangers of analyzing comedy, which as E.B. White said is a lot like dissecting a frog: It can be done, but the subject tends to die.

John Matviko thankfully avoids many of those pitfalls in his piece on presidential satire on Saturday Night Live, “Television Satire and The Presidency.” Yet he also makes a curious error which the editors should have caught. When discussing the same incident (Carvey’s audience with the president), he tells us, “It would be hard to picture Chevy Chase being invited to the Ford White House.” Has he forgotten that not six pages earlier he describes Chase performing for then-president Ford at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association? Or that when Ford’s press secretary guest-hosted SNL, the president actually appeared on the show-in inserts filmed at the White House, no less?

Matviko’s observations are more acute when he says that in the ’90s, “Many of the Clinton sketches substituted burlesque for satire.” He quotes Darrell Hammond on the difference between his Clinton and Dana Carvey’s George Bush:

“He got Iran-Contra, taking down the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War. I get Bill Clinton dancing around with busty ladies, dropping his pants, there’s a fat lady with a tape recorder, a wife with a rolling pin. It’s like The Benny Hill Show.”

Unfortunately, this piece ends up being the most dated in the collection, most strikingly when Matviko pessimistically concludes, “While the occasional joke or satiric sketch might turn up on cable or late-night television, it is difficult to imagine a satiric show popular and thus profitable enough to justify its existence.” Difficult to imagine, perhaps, for someone who had not watched the Emmy-winning, ratings-grabbing Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which only landed its host on the cover of Newsweek.

Of course Aaron Sorkin turns up, in Loren P. Quiring’s fascinating “A Man Of His Word.” Here Quiring argues that from Sorkin’s presidential characters’ love of language, their positions as “oratorical snobs,” as a West Wing script puts it, we can extrapolate their most cherished values. He says of Andrew Shepherd, The American President’s title character: “In the president’s mind, the logic of the world is something to be created from the voice of resolve, from the true and determined word, and Shepherd stands ready to give the world his logic, if only it will listen.” Moving to the West Wing’s President Bartlet and his staff, Quiring speaks of their shared concern that “words must be true, never cheapened or wasted or just plain wrong.” He concludes that Sorkin “wants Lincoln’s ‘chorus of the Union,’ a people of ‘virtue and vigilance,’ who ‘think calmly and well.”

This is not the book to which I would first turn for information about Hollywood or the White House, but it does have something valuable to say about each.

University Press Of Kentucky:

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