The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image. By Burton W. Peretti. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012. 335 pp.
The heading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image explores the institutional and cultural interplay of cinema and the presidency in the United States. It treats the Washington-Hollywood nexus as a point of convergence that gave rise to a "cinematic presidential image" (p. 5)--a powerful formulation that occupied a central place in U.S. political culture. Relying on useful primary research, Peretti shows how the chief executives of the past century--from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama--engaged the cinematic medium to boost their power on the national stage. In return, Hollywood solidified its status as a dominant cultural enterprise.
According to Peretti, the making of the presidential image originated from the Founding Fathers. Intent on navigating the young republic through its various challenges, the early heads of state, often working in tandem with the First Ladies, honed their performative skills to reassure the public as an "embodiment of the nation" (p. 14). The rise of cinema brought this effort to a new level. While enjoying the movies for pleasure, these leading men--both Democrats and Republicans--carefully studied Hollywood's image-making techniques to build their popularity and charisma in the public arena. They not only made use of the screens--big and small--to promote their policy agendas, but also convinced a constellation of Tinseltown celebrities to rally for their campaigns. Even though some leaders kept their distance from Hollywood (e.g., Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush), most others eagerly partook in constructing the cinematic presidential image. Their gains were substantial. In telling detail, Peretti shows how the dramatics of cinema, for instance, aided FDR's efforts to mask his physical disability. It also enabled Kennedy to flaunt his glamour and charm. Nixon obsessively pursued a "conservative cinematic presidential image" (p. 164), together with Reagan, who boldly "acted" his two terms in office. Clinton elevated the cinematic presidential image to its "definitive form" (p. 243), which even helped him survive through the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Peretti also shows that the alliance benefited U.S. studios. Through a careful use of key works in the field of film history, the author demonstrates how Hollywood became a cultural mainstay in America by courting Washington's...