The American President is a romantic comedy set in the White House, set against a backdrop of political issues that are still part of our public conversation. In this episode I analyse the film’s politics of nostalgia, its idealisation of the liberal agenda, and its promotion of the military and security state.
The American President was, to my knowledge, the first and only film to centre around a fictional president of the US. While other films have depicted real presidents, and some have featured fictional presidents (especially disaster movies), I do not know of any other film where the central character is a fictional president. He is played by Michael Douglas, who I think would have made an excellent president because he’s very Michael Douglas-y, in that he’s good looking, masculine without being domineering, funny, intelligent and generally very likeable.
The film was written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, in their second major collaboration following 1992’s A Few Good Men. In my opinion A Few Good Men is the better film, mostly because of the presence of Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore in Navy whites, but also because it’s a more profound film about moral responsibility. A Few Good Men was largely refused DOD production support because they couldn’t come to an agreement over the script, which I will discuss in the forthcoming censorship of suicide episode. The American President, however, did qualify for DOD assistance, because they felt the military portrayal was positive. It is likely that Sorkin minimised the screen-time for the military in The American President, and avoided anything controversial in their scenes, following the lengthy arguments on A Few Good Men.
I find this film quite charming. It’s an absurdly romanticised portrait of both the US President and the White House, and looking back and reflecting on it now it seems almost entirely unrealistic, but like most of Sorkin’s work it isn’t pretending to be a hard, grounded, factual story. It’s a romantic comedy about a widower who falls in love, which comes into conflict with his job. The politics are somewhat secondary.
Nonetheless, the politics are the most interesting part of the film, so that’s where we will focus for today. But I want to reiterate that I like this film, it’s funny and heartwarming and in places genuinely romantic. There’s some good chemistry between Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, he is very much the sort of man that women like and she is very much the sort of woman that men like. As someone who is usually very cynical about romantic comedies, this is one of the few that I really enjoyed. I will say that I find the scenes between President Michael Douglas and his young daughter to be quite cringeworthy. I don’t know why so many male leads in films need to have daughters, I guess these days it’s some kind of marketing ploy to get dippy women to like male characters, but it adds nothing whatsoever to this story.
But let’s get into the politics. There are some very interesting observations made by some of the characters in this film, such as Washington DC being designed in such a way as to intimidate foreign heads of state. And how FDR probably wouldn’t have got re-elected if there had been TV at the time and everyone realised he was in a wheelchair. I don’t think there is any special message behind these bits of dialogue, just as I don’t care that Michael J Fox’s character is called Lewis Rothschild. All three of these minor details have proved to be triggers for conspiracy theorists, as though Sorkin is trying to draw attention to how the Rothschilds secretly run the world, or whatever. I find such interpretations utterly ludicrous.
This is the first really interesting bit of dialogue, because while Sorkin has written this president as a progressive liberal Democrat, he still evokes the politics of nostalgia. ‘Americans can no longer afford to pretend they live in a great society’ is a very clunky line, because it suggests that there was a period when Americans could afford to pretend that. And possibly even a period when it wasn’t a pretence. Nonetheless it’s the same logic as ‘Make America Great Again’ or Ron Paul’s ‘Plan to Restore America’.
Why are the politics of nostalgia so effective? In all honesty, it’s because people are usually happiest when they are children, when they have less responsibilities and life is easier and more fun than when you become an adult. This is the primary reason – not the only reason – why all nostalgia is effective, why shows like Glow and Cobra Kai and Stranger Things have proved enormously popular. People think of the past as a more innocent time because they were more innocent back then, not because the world was.
I often find myself having to bite my tongue when listening to people go on about how things used to be better and how in their day life was simpler and so on. And even more often I find myself taking the piss out of them, pointing out that it still is their day because they’re still alive, and how the changes they are complaining about were mostly enacted by their generation, not mine. After all, my parents’ generation did enjoy full employment, a cheaper basic standard of living, affordable property in London, a properly funded NHS and so on. But they also had smog, Jim Crow laws, no effective treatment for cancer and so on. I’m not making any hard and fast judgements about whether it would have been better to grow up in that generation than in mine, I simply don’t know how to quantify that.
But not only do the politics of nostalgia run counter to the progressive liberalism espoused by the President in this film and many people in the real world, they expose the notion of progress for the sham it really is. Liberalism especially, but also most political philosophies these days, rely on the notion of progress, that we’re somehow getting closer to the best possible society. For liberals this is, apparently, a society free from prejudice, so they act like Trump is some kind of backward step because of all his racist rhetoric and so on. Indeed, Trump is proof that liberal progression isn’t working, his very existence in the White House is proof that liberalisation is not inevitable, that we are not on some gradual Hegelian trajectory, incrementally improving our society until we reach the best possible version of it. This is one of the reasons so many liberals have completely lost their shit – the myth they believed in has been shattered.
Underlying this recent twist is a broader problem for liberalism, that even if we ignore Trump our societies aren’t getting more liberal with time. Sure, we now have declarations of universal human rights and other individual rights, but those rights are often ignored and violated by the very institutions charged with protecting them. From the point of view of individual freedom, the basic idea behind liberalism, individuals were probably more free at the start of the 20th century. Back then you could travel across borders without a passport, you weren’t subject to mass surveillance, there were no price indexes or recommended pricing. True, you were more likely to die because you couldn’t afford basic nutrition or medical help, and I’m no great fan of the notion of individual freedom as such, I’m just highlighting how the myth of liberal progress is exactly that – a myth. So it is no surprise to see liberals evoking nostalgia in much the same way that conservatives do.
The Military and The American President
Among the various things the White House is dealing with in the course of the film is C-STAD, some missile defence system that has been sold to Israel and is being set up with the help of Army trainers and other specialists. Alongside this is a crime bill designed to drastically reduce gun ownership, and then a major environmental group hires a lobbyist to try to get the President to endorse a bill calling for a 20% reduction in fossil fuel emissions.
The lobbyist – Sidney Ellen Wade, played by Annette Bening – and the President fall in love. On one of their first dates in the White House, indeed the first time they kiss, they are interrupted because the Libyan government bombs the C-STAD facility in Israel, killing the American trainers. President Michael Douglas hits back by bombing the Libyan intelligence headquarters, though exactly how Libya have the aerial capacity to bomb Israel but don’t have the ability to defend against such an airstrike is never explained.
This is the only substantive depiction of the military in the film, and as you can see they are shown to be professional, precise, controlled. There are no cigar-chomping generals talking about ‘damn Libyans’ and their plan is described by the President’s chief of staff as decisive, immediate and proportional. There is no sense of this being overkill or unfair or illegal or anything that the DOD is worried about when it comes to their public image.
In the following scene, as President Michael Douglas sits in the Oval Office with his advisors he takes full responsibility, saying it is the ‘least Presidential’ thing he does. Again, this is an absurd romanticisation that suggests sitting Presidents worry about the victims of US military attacks, that they have a conscience when it comes to civilian casualties. While some presidents may have some moments like this, they are predominantly all too eager to give the order to kill whoever, wherever, however. The actual record of the US government is in direct contrast to this Hollywood fantasy.
Nonetheless, one wonders where Sorkin is in all this. In later years he became a total hawk – he wrote Charlie Wilson’s War with help from the CIA, he wrote a special episode of The West Wing in response to Karl Rove’s call for Hollywood to support the war on terror. But this film was written in what was arguably the least aggressive decade in the recent history of US foreign policy – the 1990s. Much of the US action in this decade was in the form of strategic air strikes, not the boots on the ground invasions of the post-9/11 period. Likewise, this event is based on the 1986 US bombing on Libya in retaliation for the government’s apparent sponsorship of terrorists including those who bombed a disco in Berlin that killed a small number of US troops.
Was Sorkin trying to encourage presidents and audiences to reflect on the human cost of US foreign policy? Or was he trying to make it seems like the US government only strikes when it is necessary, and regrets the suffering and death that this inevitably causes? Or is this more about making the President responsible, thus absolving the military of any culpability? If this had been a military character expressing regret then I have no doubt the DOD would have insisted it be changed, likely to a civilian member of the government. But they seemed to have no issues with this idea and these feelings being expressed by the President – after all, the military just followed his orders. If he then regrets his decision then that isn’t the military’s fault.
So there are a number of ways of interpreting The American President as a piece of US foreign policy propaganda. The military and the military-industrial way of life are not criticised, not subject to scepticism, only the ‘tough decision’ that the President has to make. This humanises our leaders, so instead of seeing them as the callous bastards most of them are, we’re encouraged to sympathise with them. Not to change the policy. Not to elect people who won’t regret such decisions because they won’t take them in the first place. Just to feel sorry for them being in the position where they have to give such orders. This is quite a dramatic departure in both tone and politics from how our system and leaders are portrayed in A Few Good Men.
And the military clearly like the film, because it is used by the US Navy to teach politics to their officers. A syllabus for the US Naval Academy’s course FP130: American Government and Constitutional Development includes the film in its recommended viewing. However, it is not this scene or sequence regarding Libya that is the focus, but a different scene altogether that doesn’t include the military at all. It reads:
“The American President” is a 1996 Universal Studios movie in which a widowed President (Michael Douglas) begins dating a lobbyist (Annette Bening). The story is about the problems that then ensue from their relationship. In this clip his staff is managing the President. (Michael J. Fox for one) He wants the telephone number of a florist to send flowers to Bening and the staff is perplexed by such a pedestrian request for information. The beclip shows some of the trappings of the presidency and how isolated presidents can be from normal day-to-day life. For example, the President does not know how to work the telephone system in the White House or where his credit cards are located to purchase something. The clip then switches to Annette Bening as a lobbyist. Here her boss warns of the fallout of a personal association with the president. He talks about the role of lobbyists in the system and how her personal life will interfere with her professional responsibilities.
Usage for class: This light-hearted and funny clip illustrates some of the trappings of the president, the power of staff and their concern to protect the president, and lobbyists and their role in the political process. It could be used to spark interest of serious topics with a fun and funny segment.
Clearly, this hasn’t anything to do with political science or the constitution, and doesn’t really have a lot to do with the presidential republican system. It seems they just wanted an excuse to play the clip in class because they like it. And in many ways that’s unproblematic, but it is weird. Once again it appears that the hyperreality resulting from a realistic but at the same time utterly fantastical depiction of the President doesn’t just affect regular audiences, it affects people in politics and government as well. To the extent that the Navy is now, in turn, inflicting this condition on their own officers as part of their training in politics.
The American President’s Influence on Politics
As the film progresses President Michael Douglas having a girlfriend becomes a central political issue. In an election year his main rival – Bob Rumsen, an amalgamation of Cheney and Rumsfeld – makes a lot of political hay out of the so-called ‘character debate’. This isn’t unique to the US, but it is perhaps more prominent there than anywhere else because the US has more religious reactionaries than any other Western nation. Here in the UK it actually did David Cameron’s image some good when people found out he’d fucked a pig, and likewise the affairs of John Major and John Prescott had very little consequence.
But in the US people’s sex lives are considered public property, with everyone allowed to peek in from the outside and pass judgement. The combination of sex and politics is dynamite in the US – hence why, of all Trump’s various horrendous statements and behaviour, it was the ‘grab em by the pussy’ tape that caused him the most damage. Ditto Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. It was usually conservatives attacking liberals for their supposed lack of American family values, as in this film, but today we see the Democrats trying to weaponise the same Calvinistic moralism via the #metoo fad. Indeed, The American President foreshadowed not only what happened with Clinton but also the current era whereby sexual relationships and behaviour are considered more important than foreign policy.
In the film Rumsen’s endless string of criticisms of the President and his girlfriend seriously damage Michael Douglas in the polls. He refuses to respond, saying he doesn’t want to get drawn into a character debate because it’s none of anyone else’s business and ‘no one wins these arguments’. Even when Rumsen starts making up rumours about Annette Bening providing sexual favours in exchange for votes in the Virginia state legislature, Douglas refuses to fight back. Both his chief of staff and whoever the hell Michael J Fox is supposed to be warn President Douglas that the American people are entitled to stick their noses into his personal life, no matter how often he says it is none of their business.
Herein lies one of the reasons I’m dubious about the rather woolly concept of individual freedom. Much like the notion of freedom of speech is mostly used to defend someone’s right to say something they otherwise have no right to say, including things that simply aren’t true, freedom of choice is most often used to apologise for and excuse the worst of human behaviour. The ability to choose to do something is not, in itself, a justification for doing it. And yet it’s the most common justification we hear.
I firmly believe that people’s private lives should be private, whether they are politicians or movie producers or anyone else. It is none of our business, and even if they’ve committed a crime then that’s a matter for the courts, not for tabloid media and hashtag clicktivism. But in the US this notion that ‘I decide what matters to me’ comes before any consideration of ‘what actually matters’. As such, people can believe that by sticking their noses into the private lives of public figures that they are exercising their rights, when in reality they are being voyeuristic simpletons and degrading political discourse. That has an affect on everyone, mostly a negative affect, so I do not agree that they have some inherent right to do it.
In the film the poll ratings get worse and President Michael Douglas is forced to choose between his crime bill – which contains some vague gun control measures – and the environmental bill being pushed by his girlfriend. When she finds out he has chosen the crime bill she is very hurt and goes into a rage about how his anti-crime legislation has no hope of stopping crime, before splitting up with him and storming out of the White House. Quite fairly, in my opinion. While I really like the Michael Douglas character I found myself totally on Annette Bening’s side at that moment.
So Michael Douglas decides to fight back against Bob Rumsen and goes in front of the cameras at a White House press conference to deliver an impromptu speech at the climax of the film.
There are three things I want to draw out for your attention. First, that he criticises the same politics of nostalgia that he employed at the start of the film. Second, that he’s right, in the face of violent crime and other widespread problems who really gives a damn who the President is sleeping with? It’s the sort of trivialisation of politics adopted by people who are politically ambitious but have no interest in figuring out how to fix things. And thirdly, that lines in this speech were quoted – almost verbatim – by presidential hopeful Ted Cruz during his election campaign.
This is not the only time Cruz found himself quoting movies while on the campaign trail, but it’s especially weird because his politics are pretty much the opposite of President Michael Douglas’s policies in the film. While Douglas is all about saving the environment and reducing gun crime by ‘getting the guns’ Cruz is the reverse. So why would he be so fond of this film that he’d find himself quoting it during a real life presidential campaign? It’s bizarre.
We should also note that although this film came out in the mid-1990s, very little has changed since then. Despite the much-hyped fear that the government is coming to take the guns, gun ownership in the US is as high as it has ever been. While greenhouse emissions have somewhat reduced, this is largely a result of the global recession rather than any government policy or new regulations.
Indeed, the whole film comes across as wishful thinking – a fantasy that will appeal to Hollywood liberals but achieve very little in terms of political consequences, despite being one of the most overtly political films in recent decades. If the aim was to have a serious impact then the film failed, though I don’t know what Sorkin and Reiner’s intentions were. If anything, the major impact the film has had is on the increasingly fantastical Rorschach politics that have come to dominate our public discourse. The state of hyperreality, where people conveniently ignore or even decry as fake that which doesn’t fit in with their desired worldview, is something in which Hollywood has been a major factor, and this film more than most.
Herein lies the power of films – to sell fantasies that at the same time appeal to people across the political spectrum, reinforcing multiple status quos in one stroke. In this film we have the idealisation of a liberal presidency, inspiration for hard right conservatives and the promotion of the military and the security state. For audiences both inside and outside politics this movie functions both as a highly enjoyable piece of entertainment and an aid to the establishment.