The One and Only
Barack Obama won't need special effects to walk on water.
Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
George M. Cohan, the song-and-dance man, is invited to the Oval Office by Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is an old man, and thrilled beyond words to discover his president is a fan. FDR asks Cohan to tell him the story of his life, and thus begins Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney's glorious 1942 musical.
The face of the actor who plays Roosevelt is obscured. We hear his voice, but he is photographed from the back, from the side, over his shoulder. The effect is to raise FDR's status to that of a divinity, the Hollywood equivalent of the Lord telling Moses: "Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live . . . thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen."
I suspect the treatment of Barack Obama in Hollywood will follow along the lines of this model. Not only is Obama already a figure of worship, he easily fits an already established Hollywood model: the calm and benevolent black governmental authority figure. Over the past 20 years there has hardly been a courtroom scene in which an African American is not the wise presiding judge. Never have fictional presidents been given such glowing treatment as Morgan Freeman's in the asteroid movie Deep Impact and Dennis Haysbert's on the television series 24.
But Obama is real, not fictional, and any effort to mimic or mime him, or even to offer a fictionalized representation of him in the form of a black president comparable to him, might seem disrespectful to those in Hollywood who are ready to serve him, bathe him, and anoint him with oil. He is, after all, The One, as Oprah Winfrey, perhaps the most powerful person in show business, declared him.
Among presidents in the past century, only one other--John F. Kennedy--has received such unambiguously worshipful treatment from Hollywood--and that was only after he was dead. Bill Clinton might have gotten such treatment, but as his administration began in 1993, a delegation of Hollywood potentates visited James Carville in the White House to give him their advice and counsel on what their beloved new president must do.
Their high-handed and astoundingly naïve and foolish advice on health care so enraged Carville that he began to scream at them. Carville told Maureen Dowd that "they started telling me how many degrees they had. Somebody blurted out, 'I have a Ph.D. in communications from U.C.L.A.' Well, wowee-kazowee!" This led the writer-producer Gary David Goldberg to liken his populist interlocutor to "Anthony Perkins playing Fidel Castro on acid."
Clinton's relationship with Hollywood never quite recovered from that: The injured sense among the assembled that the new young president they so wanted to love would allow them to be abused by this . . . Louisianan . . . led directly to the ambiguous portrait of Clinton offered in the film The American President and the television show The West Wing.
In the former, Clinton is a popular chief executive who is afraid to do what is right (meaning what is left) until he falls in love with an environmentalist who sets him straight. And in The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin took the sloppy but politically prudent Clinton, put him in a washing machine, pulled him out, and ironed him flat into the flawless and always principled Jed Bartlet.
Even if Barack Obama proves to be a disappointment to Hollywood, it simply will not have the vocabulary to translate him into something more along the lines of what they would prefer, as they did with Clinton. Expressing dissatisfaction with a black leader? That would be a betrayal of hope, of change.
The election of Obama will have one other effect on Hollywood. Once again, as was true when Clinton came to office, the evil city of coal-hearted pols will be wondrously transmuted into a sunny place populated by young, dreamy idealists who only want to make the world a better place.
There will be television series and movies about group houses filled with anorexic models playing House, Senate, and White House staffers, falling in like and in love and in sorrow, all residing within the becalmed shadow of the White House's master, who will look upon them and make it known to them that he is well pleased.
But he will never be seen.
John Podhoretz, editorial director of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.