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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

When presidents go to the movies

I chuckled involuntarily when I heard a television journalist report that, in the midst of the early days of the American post-presidential election “crisis,” Al Gore and Joe Lieberman had gone to the movies to see Men of Honor. I think a lot of people chuckled. Even the various anchors and reporters I saw on TV relating this fact seemed to be doing their best to suppress a smirk. (The always reliable Jay Leno quipped that, while at the cinema, the pair happened to bump into Bill Clinton, who was going to see Charlie’s Angels, and George W. Bush, who was taking in The Legend of Drunken Master.)

Why would people have this reaction? Is it because we don’t imagine people at the nexus of such momentous political turmoil taking time out to go to see a flick? Is it because we are amazed that Joe Lieberman finally found a Hollywood movie that he felt was suitable for viewing by decent people? Or is it just amused admiration for the spinner who so cleverly thought of a way to get America’s most trusted reporters to use the names “Gore” and “Lieberman” and the phrase “men of honor” all in the same sentence? In any event, I can only wonder if the Gore advisers took into account the film’s tagline: “History is made by those who break rules.”

Anyway, this got me to thinking about whether there were other cases in which presidents or wannabe presidents had used the movies to make some sort of political point. I could only think of one.

Strangely, my sole example is not Bill Clinton. The current president, by all accounts, is a man enjoys movies quite a bit and sees them regularly, often making fairly eclectic viewing choices. Really, it’s no wonder that he and Hollywood are drawn to each other. Shortly before the election, I caught a BBC interview with an American author who had written a book of which the whole premise was that Clinton has been “the Elvis president.” This fellow’s point, as I understood it, is that Clinton is very much in touch with the popular culture and has a great deal of self-awareness about his iconic role in the culture. And this is a good thing. He said that Ronald Reagan (a true product of Hollywood) also had this self-awareness. Clinton’s two would-be successors, on the other hand, don’t have it, and he said that this is a bad thing. He went so far as to claim that George W. Bush never reads a book or goes to see movies. If true, what a sad waste of the White House private screening room if he gets in.

So, it’s strange that I can’t think of any instances where Clinton has used, or attempted to use, a movie in some sort of symbolic way, as Gore and Lieberman did. (John Kennedy’s administration was dubbed Camelot, after a Broadway musical that became a movie, but that was after the fact.)

The one case I can think of, appropriately enough, is Reagan. During some tense international crisis in 1985 (I forget which one), he made an off-hand comment that he had a much better idea of how to deal with America’s enemies after having seen Rambo the night before. John Rambo is, of course, the fictional Vietnam war veteran, immortalized by Sylvester Stallone, who is an indestructible fighting machine. The main mystery about Rambo is that, with him on our side during the war, how could the U.S. have ever lost? He is an ironic figure for a U.S. president to be pointing to, since he debuted in the 1982 film First Blood in which he was fighting against the U.S. government, well against a small town jurisdiction anyway that led to the military being called in because he was so invincible. Anyway, Rambo was victimized by the authorities for no good reason. The message was that America’s fighting men got shafted in Vietnam and they got shafted again when they came home.

In the sequel that so inspired Reagan, Rambo: First Blood II, he gets to go back to southeast Asia and fight the war all over. More than any other popular entertainment, this one film quite successfully propagated the myth that the American military somehow had its hands tied behind its back in fighting the Vietnam war and that the only thing that prevented an all-out American victory was craven politicians back in Washington, D.C. (I hate to get in the way of a good story, but my personal recollection from the time was that the U.S. threw everything it had at the Viet Cong short of nukes. It’s just hard to defeat an enemy fighting on his own soil.)

The Rambo reference was one of many Reagan touches that, deliberately or not, gave other countries the impression that he might not be quite right in the head and that he was itching for a fight. In truth, he was just following an old maxim of Richard Nixon’s: that you will manage your adversaries better if they’re not quite sure that you are sane. It is left for the reader to decide whether or not this was instrumental in ending the Cold War in America’s favor.

-S.L., 16 November 2000

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