Hollywood and the White House
Presidents and movie stars have long shared their power with each other
On Nov. 4, 1944, Frank Sinatra performed for a crowd of 40,000 in Boston's Fenway Park. But they hadn't come to hear him. Nor were they there for Orson Welles, who followed Sinatra's "Star Spangled Banner" with a spitfire oration excoriating Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey. The star attraction that floodlit evening was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who followed Welles with a 45-minute campaign speech that brought the crowd to its feet. Sinatra, already world-famous in his own right, watched with admiration and a touch of envy. "What a guy," he murmured, "and boy, does he pack 'em in."
Of course, Sinatra's star-spangled support in exchange for Roosevelt's reflected glory was hardly a historical anomaly. The interdependent relationship between presidents and entertainers is an open secret, and the fascinating subject of Alan Schroeder's "Celebrity-in-Chief," a well researched examination of the intricate connections between Hollywood and the Oval Office.
"These once disparate communities find themselves thrown together in the fraternity of fame," Schroeder writes, "two branches of the same tree that for the past hundred years have been steadily intertwining."
Schroeder credits Roosevelt with being the first to recognize that "in a democratic society, elected officials had much to gain by embracing the people's choice" on both stage and screen, yet a mutual fascination can be traced as far back as the 1860s, when Abraham Lincoln reportedly broke up a cabinet meeting to receive Tom Thumb.
Over the ensuing century, celebrity sightings at the White House were increasingly common. Woodrow Wilson hosted Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin; Warren Harding greeted Lillian Gish with a Hollywood embrace; comedy actress Marie Dressler visited so often, beginning in the Cleveland administration, that she claimed to know "perfectly well where to find the ice box."
Still, for all the close encounters, both worlds remained separate from one another. Roosevelt made effective use of celebrities, and enjoyed them personally - even going so far as to give Mickey Rooney advice on his screen character's love life - but FDR's public appearances with movie stars were rare, a threat to presidential prestige. As might be expected, celebrities were even less visible during the glamour-free administrations of Truman and Eisenhower, as would later be the case with Johnson. Which raises a provocative question: Was the open road between Hollywood Boulevard and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue laid by John Kennedy or by Richard Nixon?
Kennedy's intimacy with Marilyn Monroe is legendary, and his early proximity to the stars of the '40s, as the son of a Hollywood mogul, seems to have imbued his character as deeply as did his heroism on PT-109. According to one friend who worked for Gary Cooper, young JFK obsessively analyzed how the famous behaved: "He was always interested in seeing whether he had it - the magnetism - or didn't have it."
He did, as history proved, but he was also a snob. Entertainers were not of his social class. They were collectively necessary, yet individually dispensable. Sinatra was dropped when his alleged ties to the mob threatened to become an image problem. More disturbing was the president's treatment of ardent supporter Sammy Davis, Jr., who was disinvited from the inauguration after he married a white woman.
Davis had already graciously delayed his wedding until five days after the election, lest his high-profile interracial marriage to May Britt give bigots another reason to vote for Nixon. But apparently that wasn't enough. Three days before his scheduled appearance at the inaugural gala, Kennedy's secretary told him not to show. Davis was devastated. "My God, if he'll do this to me," he wrote, "then what hope have the millions of invisible people got?"
Their hope, he decided, was none other than Richard Nixon. Davis's endorsement of the arch-Republican in 1972 lost the entertainer many friends, but the unlikely alliance between the two men was genuine and survived Nixon's tenure in the White House. Nixon appointed Davis to the Council on Economic Opportunity, and used him as an ambassador across the racial divide.
Nixon understood that, in a mass-media age, Hollywood was no longer just a presidential warm-up act, but equal to the White House in influence. That's why he included Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand on his enemies list, and put Groucho Marx under Secret Service surveillance as a potential assassin. And it's why he maintained relationships with Davis, Sinatra, and Charlton Heston.
Something changed during the Nixon administration. His presidency fostered a direct equation of celebrity with power, and his resignation deprived the White House of recourse to dignity. Of the six presidents to follow, only two have been reelected - Reagan and Clinton - the only two with big-screen charisma. After Nixon, an effective chief executive seemingly must have Hollywood within him.
"There have been times in this office when I've wondered how you could do the job if you hadn't been an actor," Reagan said in his final days. But Franklin Roosevelt, ever prescient, anticipated even that. He said it all when he told Orson Welles, "We're the two best actors in the world."
• Jonathon Keats is a freelance writer in San Francisco.