Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

The Post

The Post, Meryl StreepI really wanted to love this movie (trailer). It has everything I like—a story about important principles, two impeccable stars and a terrific supporting cast, a newsroom setting. Director Steven Spielberg had much so much good stuff to work with—including a decent script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer—why wasn’t it better?

One of the team’s great decisions is to present Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) not as a hard-nosed, successful businesswoman, but one growing into a not-always-comfortable role as publisher of the Washington Post (a position first held by her father, then her late husband). In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents that recount the government’s decades of deception about the Vietnam War, Graham faces a fateful choice of tremendous consequence: will the Post will publish stories based on these top secret documents?

On one hand, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the newsroom staff are pushing to publish. For them, it’s a “freedom of the press” issue, a riveting story, and they’re racing the clock to get in the game.

On the other hand, her business advisors (notably, Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) and the Nixon Administration oppose publication, which is risky on several counts. First is legal jeopardy: already the Justice Department has taken the rival New York Times to court on the matter. Barring the Times from publishing more, at least temporarily, opens the door for the Post. Then there’s financial jeopardy: the bankers who backed the Post’s recent stock offering are threatening to pull out if the paper goes ahead.

Graham’s personal relations further muddy the waters. She’s been friends for years with people who the Pentagon Papers show participated in the war deception, notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Is she respecting her family legacy by publishing or by holding back? In the end, of course, her decision sets the stage for the Post’s becoming one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

The newsroom Spielberg and the reporters create is an exciting place. As Bilge Ebiri said in the Village Voice, “I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom . . . a whole world that’s been lost.” It’s also fun to see the newspaper produced the old-fashioned way: linotype machines and hot lead. Victory is in the air when the Post’s trucks roll out of the printing plant in the early morning mist.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? For me, it’s because the central question—will she or won’t she?—is one we already know the answer to. It’s the scenes where we don’t know the outcome, like the powerful one where Graham confronts her old friend McNamara, that are the most compelling. Given that, drawing out her dithering (despite how expertly Streep dithers) seems, finally, fake. For a contrast, consider the movie Spotlight. Again, we know the Globe reporters get the priest abuse story, but every interview had qualities of uncertainty about it. It was a puzzle painstakingly assembled in front of our eyes.

I also could have done without the tepid and too-stagy anti-war demonstrations and the bevy of eager young women waiting for Graham as she leaves the U.S. Supreme Court building. The point about her pioneering in a male world had been already made, much more effectively.

Nevertheless, in 2018, the story provides a vital reminder about the ongoing and urgent need for an unfettered news media to hold people in power to account.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences 74%.

****Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

washington-star

The old Washington Star building; photo: wikimedia

By John Norris – You think women in journalism have a long way to go when you consider how being young, glamorous, blonde of hair and white of tooth seem to be hiring criteria, and when you learn how sexual harassment of them is more common than seems possible in 2016 (for organizations that make their living exposing secrets, after all). But then you read Mary McGrory’s compelling life story, written by John Norris—a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress—and realize the distance traveled is pretty far after all.

McGrory was from Boston, the first person in her Irish Catholic family to finish college, and she began her newspaper career at the bottom of a very tall ladder. She worked for a time in Boston, as an assistant to the Herald Traveler’s literary editor, but the quality of her writing propelled her to a position as assistant book critic at the Washington Star. The nation’s capital in 1947 was a boomtown, full of change, openness, mobility.

Six years later, Mary’s badgering of Star editor Newby Noyes led him to assign her to write a series of political profiles, and Mary began spending time with the men she’d be writing about for the next half-century, including new Senate minority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The positive reception the profiles received garnered her a plum assignment: covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. From there she covered the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign of 1956, becoming one of the nation’s most respected reporters and colorful commentators on the political scene.

After the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Washington Post snatched her up. She wrote for that paper for twenty-two more years, though the Star was always her first love. She covered multiple Presidential campaigns, the Kennedy presidency was a miracle for Mary, pushing all her loyalty buttons—Boston, her faith, and her admiration of the family.

The fates of those brothers were intimately, personally felt. By contrast, she loathed Richard Nixon: “If he were a horse, I would not buy him.” Her name appeared on his infamous “enemies list.” Regarding the Gore-Bush campaign of 2000, she said the race was a “battle between the unlikeable and the unprepared.”

Although well known for her scorching prose, Mary’s life off the page is also fascinating. It seems she had one or more affairs with prominent politicians and journalists, and LBJ once propositioned her. She was a great party-goer and -giver. Her entire time in Washington, she regularly volunteered at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home—a refuge for young unmarried women—and arranged with Ethel Kennedy for the children to have swimming parties at Hickory Hill, the Robert Kennedy family home in Virginia. She persuaded Hillary Clinton to visit at Christmas in 1995, the year journalist Tim Russert played Santa Claus. These children were the stand-ins for the children Mary, never married, didn’t have.

Indefatigable Mary McGrory, pioneer woman in journalism, astute and opinionated, winner of a Four Freedoms Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, mentor to women journalists, had a stroke at her desk in 2003 and her health—and worse, her powers of speech—never recovered. Her simple tombstone in Antrim, Mass., reads exactly the way she wanted it to:  name, dates, and the inscription “Newspaper Woman and Volunteer.”

“Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.”–Mary McGrory

***American Quartet

lincoln, Mount Rushmore

photo: Aaron Vowels

By Warren Adler, narrated by Julie Griffin – You can’t help but enjoy the clever criminal lurking behind the scenes in this 1982 classic. Set in Washington, DC, around 1980 (it was a presidential election year, so thereabouts), a time when I lived in the Nation’s Capital, this police procedural includes many reminders of that place and time.

The novel’s protagonist, Fiona Fitzgerald, has abandoned the path expected of her as the daughter of a US Senator and serves as a Sergeant in the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide division—a white woman in what was then a black male bastion. (This is one place where 35 years has made a profound difference. Today, DC’s mayor is a woman, its just-retiring police commissioner is a white woman, and the department is trending white.)

Fitzgerald and her partner face a baffling set of murders, but the reader/listener knows something the police do not: the perpetrator is recreating, to the extent practicable, the assassinations of past U.S. presidents on their anniversary dates. After the first two “copycat crimes” (James Garfield and William McKinley), you anticipate the perpetrator’s inevitable further recreations (John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln)—with a growing sense of dread. Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy, Lincoln: the American quartet.

I found it hard to believe no one in the police, the media, or the local citizenry—full of  history and political buffs—tumbled to the similarities between current and past events, especially after the two deaths on November 22, the anniversary of JFK’s murder. Adler makes the point that Americans are oblivious about their history, and I’ll give him that. But, thanks to television, the Kennedy killing is seared into the national memory, especially in Washington DC. In 1980, it was only 17 years in the past. About how long ago Y2K is now.

Fitzgerald (sharing a name with the martyred president) may be distracted by her love life. Her politician boyfriend faces a tough reelection battle in Queens. His congressional district’s demographics have moved away from him, and he needs cash (some new ideas also would help). What might save him is the financial support of failed Senatorial candidate Thaddeus Remington, a wealthy player in the Washington party circuit. I liked all the politics and, if there were some aspects of the story that seemed far-fetched, the time-capsule attributes were strong.

Listening to a book is a different experience than reading it. Most of the principal characters in this book are men, and Julie Griffin does a good job with them. Yet, I kept checking my iPod to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently clicked a 1.5 reading speed. Also, I wonder that there’s no one (the equivalent of an editor) to correct startling mis-readings. The point isn’t to ding the narrator on the kind of mistake any of us might make from time to time, but to emphasize that such persistent errors—like egregious typographical errors—take the listener out of the story.