The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image

Overview

American presidents and Hollywood have interacted since the 1920s. This relationship has made our entertainment more political and our political leadership more aligned with the world of movies and movie stars.

In The Leading Man, Burton W. Peretti explores the development of the cinematic presidential image. He sets the scene in chapter 1 to show us how the chief executive, beginning with George Washington, was positioned to assume the mantle of cultural leading man. As an ...

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The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image

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Overview

American presidents and Hollywood have interacted since the 1920s. This relationship has made our entertainment more political and our political leadership more aligned with the world of movies and movie stars.

In The Leading Man, Burton W. Peretti explores the development of the cinematic presidential image. He sets the scene in chapter 1 to show us how the chief executive, beginning with George Washington, was positioned to assume the mantle of cultural leading man. As an early star figure in the young republic, the president served as a symbol of national survival and wish fulfillment. The president, as head of government and head of state, had the potential to portray a powerful and charismatic role.

At the center of the story are the fourteen presidents of the cinematic era, from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama. Since the 1920s, the president, like the lead actor in a movie, has been given the central place on the political stage under the intense glare of the spotlight. Like other American men, future presidents were taught by lead movie actors how to look and behave, what to say, and how to say it. Some, like John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, took particular care to learn from the grooming, gestures, movements, and vocal inflections of film actors and applied these lessons to their political careers. Ronald Reagan was a professional actor. Bill Clinton, a child of the post–World War II Baby Boom, may have been the biggest movie fan of all presidents. Others, including Lyndon Johnson, showed little interest in movies and their lessons for politicians.

Presidents and other politicians have been criticized for cheapening their offices by hiring image and advertising consultants and staging their public events. Peretti analyzes the evolution and the significance of this interaction to trace the convoluted history of the presidential cinematic image. He demonstrates how movies have been the main force in promoting appearance and drama over the substance of governing, and how Americans’ lives today may be dominated by entertainment at the expense of their engagement as citizens.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Detailing the evolution of the duality now inherent in the role of the President of the United States—that of national and international celebrity—Peretti (Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan) convincingly explores the influence that popular culture—through journalism, theater, and, eventually and most importantly, motion pictures—has had on the nation's highest office. Breezing through the contributions of early presidential figures and their first ladies, Peretti begins by elucidating theater's influence on 19th-century political oratory before diving head first into how the burgeoning film industry and the mass media publicity machines that arose with it in the 1920s fomented a cult of personality that has transcended entertainment and found arguably insidious purchase in the political arena. What results is an interesting, if not obvious, presentation of the influential interplay between two seemingly disparate arenas, just how blurred the lines between the two have become, and what that means for the political process. (Sept.)
National Review

"Intriguing"
author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 - Jackson Lears

"A challenging exploration of the intersection between the modern presidency and mass culture, refreshingly free of formulaic celebration and condemnation. This is a book to take seriously."
author of Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics - Steven J. Ross

"Burton W. Peretti’s The Leading Man deepens our understanding of Hollywood’s increasingly central role in American political culture and reveals the ways in which many twentieth-century presidents adapted Hollywood communication techniques to sell themselves and their policies to voters."
Choice

"Peretti examines and explains how movie and television screens shaped the image of 14 presidents from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama. Recommended."
The Journal of American History

"Peretti's analysis provides moments of brilliant insight into the intersection between the film industry and presidential politics."
Choice

"Peretti examines and explains how movie and television screens shaped the image of 14 presidents from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama. Recommended."
Library Journal
Since the days of George Washington, U.S. presidents have tried to use the media for their own image making with varying success. By the time of Theodore Roosevelt's tenure in the White House, the movie industry had also found uses for the presidency as an aid to storytelling. Many chief executives have been portrayed in cinema, most often but by no means always as benign symbols of America. Peretti (history, Western Connecticut State Univ.; Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music) necessarily devotes most of the book to the years following 1929 when presidents could be heard as well as seen, and he uses the 14 presidents from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama to explore how the movies changed perceptions of the office and the individuals who filled it. The culmination of this cross-pollination probably came with the election of former movie actor Ronald Reagan to the presidency. VERDICT Peretti's writing rises above many Hollywood-centered books by viewing the industry from an historian's perspective, albeit sometimes ponderously. It should appeal to knowledgeable general readers and serious film buffs.—Roy Liebman, Los Angeles P.L.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813554044
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press
  • Publication date: 9/17/2012
  • Pages: 350
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


BURTON W. PERETTI is a professor of history at Western Connecticut State University. He is the author of four other books, including The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America and Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
Introduction

1. “The Torments of Desire”: Presidents and Performance before 1929

2. The Studios’ Golden Age and the White House, 1929–1945

3. The Old Man and TV, 1945–1960

4. Charisma’s Hour, 1960–1969

5. Enter Stage Right, 1969–1989

6. Hollywood Wags the Dog, 1990–2000

7. The Twin Towers, 2001–2009

Conclusion
Notes
Index

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