All the President’s… Movies?!
The Movies the Presidents Watched in Office and What It Means
Everybody likes to think they can guess everything about you based on your taste. This is not true, but who among us hasn’t said they liked a movie while never actually seeing it in order to impress someone? And with recent romantic holidays in mind, tis the season for lying to impress someone. I’m of course talking about Presidents’ day! We like to think we know who the presidents are based on things like their policies, their families, or their hairlines. But we don’t spend enough time asking them important things like, “…so what’s your favorite movie?” And why not? We ask this important question to other important people in our lives, why not to the person who’s going to run the country? It’s important! And again, of course it’s ok for people to like different things, but on the other hand I can’t be alone when I hear someone’s differing opinion on a movie and think, “You moron!”
Luckily for us, the journalists at Turner Classic Movies are asking the hard hitting questions. In 2004, they invited Joe Biden and a couple other senators to select and introduce a movie for the channel. Ultimately, his pick and reasoning is… very Joe Biden. Rated M for Malarkey-free.
His pick, interestingly enough, was nominated for best screenplay in 1989, and his former coworker, Barack Obama, took his wife on a first date to see another film which was also nominated for best screenplay in 1989, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But unfortunately, for the time being we have no way of knowing how much they actually like these movies. We only have their word, and politicians, for better or worse, know that their job depends on being likable so they don’t normally fire off hot takes about how confusing the MCU is or how gimmicky this season’s Oscar darling is. Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but most of our presidents have been middle-aged white men, so they usually say their favorite movie is some snoozer/classic about war or cowboys or another white guy in a suit. For instance 3 presidents — Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton — cite High Noon, the 1952 western, among their favorite movies. It’s a good movie but pretty a generic answer if you ask me.
The president and the movies of a specific era both set cultural tones, but at the same time they don’t inherently have anything to do with each other. So imagining one observing the other, while a completely common place activity, feels kind of casually surreal like seeing your teacher at the store. You want to ask them, “What the heck are you doing? Is this allowed?” to which they can only justifiably answer “Well, what does it look like?” It reminds us that politicians might have emotions. To imagine any culturally powerful person witnessing a piece of separate powerful culture, you can’t help but wonder if they recognize its origins and understand what it means.
So how can we know the President is telling the truth and not just saying they like the Souvenir to sound cool? There’s a difference between what we tell people we like and our actual viewing habits. For instance, I can remember a time not too long ago when I said the movie High Noon was good when truthfully, I haven’t even seen it!
Well, like most things we won’t be able to really know the viewing habits of recent presidents for years. But as a part of the Freedom of Information Act, we can see the log of the White House’s private theater which states what movies were screened on what date. And luckily for us Matt Novak of Gizmodo has requested many of the Presidents’ movie logs, and its about time for W’s viewing habits to be released! So instead of judging these guys on nerdy stuff like political policies, lets judge them on not-at-all nerdy stuff like their movie taste!
In the spring of 1970 at the height of Vietnam, Nixon watched the war bio-pic Patton 3 times, which covers General Patton’s relentless struggle as a persistent yet hot-tempered commander during the end of World War II. It’s perhaps easy to guess why Nixon liked it. But I’m not sure he fully internalized the film. At the end, the tragic hero Patton has let his temper and mouth get the better of him, angering everyone from Eisenhower to the Russians. He’s won the war but in doing so damaged so much, including his own reputation. In the last shot of the film, he walks the hills of the now-conquered Germany and recounts how in antiquity parades would be held for returning heroes, “A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.” There is no public record for how many times Nixon watched the film post-presidency.
But this was known to be Nixon’s favorite movie, so much so that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai watched it before meeting Nixon, so not exactly new revelations. A more surprising rewatch of Nixon’s is the 1973 romantic drama The Way We Were starring Babs and Robert Redford which is listed on November 9th, 1973 and in March of 1974.
This movie follows two ideologically opposed young adults, an anti-war Jewish Marxist and a WASPy radical centrist, who fall in love but ultimately just can’t make it work. This rewatch doesn’t quite fit with our notion of Nixon as hummanistic president; he’d certainly lean closer to Redford’s character than Babs’. But perhaps we’re not giving him enough credit and maybe in the throws of the Watergate investigation he was really vibing with the melancholy of a star-crossed future could never be. While Novak of Gizmodo suggests Nixon had a taste for psychological thrillers, I’d like to add he was quite meloncholic. With movies like A Man for All Seasons, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and It’s a Wonderful Life all screened in the last few months of his presidency, you can’t help but wonder how much he identified with Norma Desmond.
Jimmy Carter, who watched movies the most frequently of any president (over 400 in one term), began his administration with quite a doozy of an inaugural screening of All the President’s Men. So perhaps Carter could hear Patton’s warning more than Nixon. But we probably already knew that. Carter, in my opinion has the best, most balanced taste of any president in terms of contemporary movies vs classics, as well as comedies vs dramas. Carter’s reputation as a religious prude doesn’t show itself in the movie selection, with movies like Hardcore and the X-rated Midnight Cowboy being screened in his administration. On the other hand, Novak suggests that the screening of sex-comedy 10 on January 25, 1980 is not coincidentally followed by a screening of a movie called Jesus the following day; however, Jimmy Carter watched 10 two times in office.
In fact, Carter’s rewatches paint the president’s taste as anything but family-oriented. Among his rewatches are the outrageous comedy The In-Laws, the sobering drama Tribute, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, all of which he rewatched days after seeing them for the first time and often times watched with the family.
Reagan’s picks are frankly kind of boring, meaning he is perhaps the president whose cinematic taste aligns close to the era’s reputation of nostalgia, materialism, and ridiculousness. They consist of a mix between classical hollywood, contemporary nostalgic movies, and weird comedies. You’ve got your Stagecoaches and your Rio Bravos and even a screening of That’s Entertainment Part II (which is basically a clip show of classic musical numbers) and as well as things like Return of the Jedi, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Red Dawn.
They’re several Sly Stallone movies, but no Rambos. As well as Robert Zemeckis’ first three mainstream movies, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabit?. Now, this I find interesting. I find it interesting because it’s easy to paint Zemeckis as a mainstream-Hollywood earnest white guy boomer (Forrest Gump), the kind who would align closely to Reagan, but at the same time, his work also meagerly challenges Reaganism. Back to the Future is a deconstruction of the myth of the simpler 1950s ‘good ole days’. Things weren’t purer or nobler back then compared to 1985. George McFly didn’t meet Lorraine because of some fateful coincidence. He was stalking her and watching her undress. On the other hand, the film’s happy ending involves Marty getting his materialistic wish fufilled with a suped up truck, so 1985 is no nobler than back then either. Meanwhile Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’s antagonist is an evil tycoon who plots to monopolize LA’s transit system and build highways out of prejudice for the native cartoon inhabitants and his own profit. These themes of nostalgia, capitalism, and materialism raise quite the cultural chicken and egg question: which came first, Reagan’s embrace of nostalgia and capitalism, or was he just a symptom? Probably both. Regan did deregulate things like childrens’ television programing allowing for more product oriented programing like Transformers. But filmmakers like George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, and Slyvester Stallone, who grew up on the same nostalgic adventure shows Reagan himself could’ve starred in, were finally breaking out to the mainstream around the same time as Reagan was capitalizing politically on that nostalgia.
Regan also watched numerous bad cash grab sequels. Too many: The Sting II, Cocoon II, Crocidille Dundee II, Oh God, Book II and Oh God, You Devil? Why? Why did the President of the United States just have to see George Burns portray God and the devil? This adds to the excessive reputation the 80s had. This is why I say he had the borringest taste of any president. A man of his time, I suppose — or a man of nostalgic times. Of course there are outliers on the list too: Broadcast News, Working Girl, Crossing Delancy, the scottish masterpiece Local Hero, the swedish film My Life as a Dog, Babs’s Yentl. No record of Taxi Driver, the favorite movie of his attacker John Hinkley Jr.
Where Reagan is kind of predictable, Clinton is kind of, well, peculiar. Clinton went on the record with Roger Ebert saying, “The best perk of the White House is not Air Force One or Camp David or anything else, it’s the wonderful movie theater I get here,” yet he didn’t seem to really use it with only 174 entries over the course of 8 years in office. What gives? It’s tempting to speculate some viewings with secret special guests were redacted but I’ll tell you something else missing from the records: any movie which came out before 1991! If you’re only gonna watch mainstream movies which come out while you’re in office that’s gonna limit your perspectives, Bill.
Novak hypothesizes that Clinton was more of social guy and would use the theater for entertaining rather than simply selecting his own tastes. I don’t buy this. If you were entertaining guests, would you want to take a stab and pick whatever is currently playing in cinemas or something you know to be good? Maybe he just didn’t care about movies as much as he told Roger Ebert he did. Am I calling Bill Clinton a lier? I’m not sure, but I’ll have a special counsel look into any statements made under oath on the Roger & the Movies. In all seriousness, I have no idea what’s going on here. In the Ebert interview he speaks of many old movies so lovingly, including 1951’s the African Queen, saying he watched “it just the other day”. So either the Clinton Library needs to get its act together or maybe he watched it on a 90s TV. If he did that… don’t get me started.
For whatever reason, H.W. and Ford’s comprehensive lists have not been released to the public yet; however, it sounds like Bush had a similar approach to Clinton. I could find note of a screening of the Steve Martin comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels shown to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver on February 18, 1989 and a screening of The Dream Team for guests Gary Shandling and Linda Doucett on April 29, 1989, and I gotta say the man knew how to throw a screening party.
I don’t really want to think about the previous president. He’s not interesting, nor interested. The man’s an idiot, too stupid even for moives. We’ve all seen that bizarre clip of him trying his hardest to think about Citizen Kane. I doubt he spent that much time in the cinema anyway, but time will tell to see how many times he watched Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. After Parasite’s historic win for Best Picture at the Oscars, he said “We’ve got enough problems with South Korea with trade. On top of that, they give them best movie of the year.” having not seen the film. So we can probably presume he wasn’t staying up late binging Iranian New Wave. A real shame if you ask me.
One occupant who was interested in arthouse cinema was Jackie Kennedy, who had excellent cinematic taste, because of course she did. Her viewing habits were made up of news documentaries, home movies, and foreign films including Rossellini’s Generale Della Rovere, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and Alain Resnais’ opulent and surreal Last Year at Marienbad which she loved.
She was quoted recommending it to her fashion designer Oleg Cassini saying, “You must see “les Dernieres années a Marienbad”, all chanelish chiffons. I saw a picture of Bardot in one — in Match or Elle in black — but mine could be red, covered up in long sleeves — transparent. That and a drapy dress like jersey would be fun for a change.” It’s a shame the Kennedys couldn’t have stayed longer. Foriegn films were just taking off in popularity and style. I wonder what she would’ve thought of something like the vibrant The Young Girls of Rochefort or the sleek Cleo from 5 to 7.
But it is about time for George W. Bush’s movie diary to be released. What did George Bush watch and when did he watch it? I am incredibly interested to find out because well, like I said it’s hard to imagine some people watching movies. But the more the public learned about the guy in the last few years, the more questions we have. He paints in his free time? And he reads books about history in his free time and acts upon what he learns from them? Who is this connoisseur? It’ll be exciting to finally have some questions answered, like you think he ever watched Oliver Stones’ W.? or how many times did he have to watch Austin Powers to perfect that great Doctor evil impression? I really hope he was a big Mike Myers fan. I mean, Shrek? In the White House? More importantly, pressumably this would probably be the period the White House theater upgraded to digital projection, meaning forget movies, the president could probably watch television in there now! And what a time for television it is. Think of what Bush could’ve watched: the Wire, The Daily Show? We’ll just have to wait and see. But my money is on the Colbert Report.
Movies are complicated things. The best of them are rich in complex themes, techniques, emotions, histories, and productions, often years in the making. Meanwhile, presidents on the other hand… well, they are probably complicated things too, but maybe not as complicated.
And while I’m not so naive to think that watching more or better movies makes you a morally better person, I will say Jimmy Carter in my opinion had the best taste in movies, and *he* builds houses and eradicates diseases now, so.