The Construction of the Image of American Presidency in Contemporary Political Comedy

Abstract:

This article analyzes the narrative of politics and the image of the American presidency in political comedies Dave (1993), The American President (1995) and Man of the Year (2006). With a focus on the convergence of personal, popular and political, the article identifies major themes present in all of the three aforementioned films. Themes include conspiracy, the motif of the outsider, role of media, role of special interests, president’s relations with advisers, family, scandal, and public image. For each theme, the fictional account of Washington politics is compared with actual developments in that field. The article also discusses possible impact of media exposure on political participation and trust.


Introduction

Plentiful research has demonstrated fictional portrayals of politics are capable of informing citizens’ perceptions of public policy issues (Gans-Boriskin & Tisinger 2005), political institutions (Holbert et. al. 2003), and social institutions such as media (Elliott & Schenck-Hamlin 1979). Furthermore, such portrayals can have an impact on public’s evaluations of former or incumbent politicians’ performance (Adams et. al. 1985; Holbert et. al. 2003). Siegfried Kracauer (1947, cited in Neve 2000) argues that ‘images and myths recurring in successful films could be read as indicating underlying trends in the political culture’ (21). For this reason, analysis of fictional portrayals of politics and political institutions is of paramount importance. The focus on the genre of comedy is not incidental, since the genre enjoys considerable popularity and therefore has a potential of reaching out to a greater number of citizens.

Literature Review

In a comparative study of portrayals of presidential candidates’ in American cinema in the pre-1990s period and during the 1990s, Neve (2000) argues that from the 1930s through 1980s, the Cold War and the belief in democratic reform were the dominant themes. During the 1990s, the tone changed from hopeful to cynical, and the focus shifted to the power of the military-industrial complex and politics of self-interest and incumbency. Neve’s findings mirror those by Elliott and Schenck-Hamlin (1979) who claim that early films constructed a favorable image of politics and politicians, while contemporary ones present a picture of a political system ‘so corrupt that reform appears impossible’ (547). Thompson (1986) adds that already in late 1940s, cinema focused on ‘the seeming inability of American politics to put [American] ideals into practice’ (45). There appears to be a broad consensus that early fictional portrayals of politicians in general and presidents in particular were reverent and respectful, while contemporary films, books, and other popular culture artifacts characterize ‘the chief executive as a murderer, rapist, cuckold, philanderer and wife beater’ (Butters 1997: 37).

However, several case-specific studies dismiss the claim that contemporary cinema and television promote a negative and cynical perception of politics. Research on television series The West Wing emphasizes that fictional portrayals of the internal dynamics of the White House can ‘define presidential leadership in powerful and meaningful ways’ (Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles 2002: 209) and ‘put a human face on engaging political discussions, demonstrating that politics can be accessible and enjoyable’ (Beavers 2002: 213).

The three comedies analyzed in this paper, namely Dave, The American President and Man of the Year, present mixed evidence. On the one hand, they portray unsettling political realities such as corruption and unconstrained influence of interest groups; on the other hand, they construct a humanized and engaging image of presidency.  

Film Synopses

Dave (1993) tells a story of a president’s lookalike, Dave Kovic, who works at a local employment agency and sometimes impersonates the president to earn extra money. He is hired by the Secret Service to make public appearances instead of the president while the latter is having adulterous affairs. On one of such occasions, president Bill Mitchell suffers a massive heart attack while having sex with a young White House aide. Mitchell’s Chief-of-Staff (Bob Alexander) and Communications Director (Alan Reed), desirous of keeping the president’s affair in secrecy, ask Dave to stand in for the president until Mitchell’s health improves. Bob Alexander sees the entire situation as an opportunity to advance his own political agenda. However, kind-hearted Dave sees the chance to make a difference for American people and embarks on a course of his own. When Alexander realizes Dave is out of his control, he attempts to destroy political personas of the president and Vice-President by publicizing Mitchell’s murky financial deals. Yet Dave testifies before Congress that Alexander was the true mastermind behind the financial irregularities. In the middle of his speech, Dave fakes a heart attack to be switched back with Mitchell, who dies shortly after. This leads to the inauguration of the generous and public-minded Vice-President. Dave returns to his own life and runs for the city council. He is joined by the former First Lady, with whom he falls in love during his days in the White House.

The American President (1995) features a widowed president (Andrew Shepherd) developing a romantic relationship with a successful environmental lobbyist (Sydney Wade), to the delight of omnipresent media and his political rivals. The president soon faces a dilemma between passing a crime bill that would boost his falling ratings and environmental bill that is pushed through by Sydney. The president opts for the environmental bill and secures his romantic union.

In Man of the Year (2006), a comedian Tom Dobbs gets elected president because of a glitch in a computerized voting system. An employee of the company designing voting systems (Eleanor Green) discovers the glitch and reports it to her boss several days before the election. The boss wants to keep the malfunction secret and tries silencing Eleanor. She manages to tell Dobbs he is not the real president, leading to his resignation and a reelection. Eleanor becomes managing editor of Dobbs’ TV show as well as his romantic companion.

Film Analysis

The article will now proceed to the analysis and discussion of the themes present in all the three movies.

Conspiracy

It has been observed that contemporary cinema is ‘virtually exploding with conspiratorial plots starring Washington as the heavy’ (Schulte 1997, cited in Lee & Paddock 2001: 168). Conspiracy theme is characteristic of the American postwar popular culture in general (Kravitz 1999) and even of people’s ‘way of thinking about who they are and how the world works’ (Knight 2000, cited in Van Zoonen 2005: 108). In an interview to Newsweek, a former Clinton’s adviser offers an explanation of the Hollywood’s obsession with plots: when the Cold War ended, in the absence of a clearly identifiable foreign threat, American started to fantasize about enemy within (Stephanopoulos 1997). Conspiracy is the central storyline in both Dave and Man of the Year, and the close relationship between president Shepherd and lobbyist Wade in The American President also has a conspiratorial tinge.

Apprehensions about government conspiracy should hardly elicit surprise given the mediated character of public communication and the perception of politics as a performance (Street 2002a). Statistics indicate a vast majority of Americans believe in a conspiracy of some sort: 70 per cent believe in the JFK conspiracy (Langer 2004) and a third suspects 9/11 to be the handwork of the government (Hardgrove 2006). The three films powerfully resonate with the fears and doubts of the American public.

The Motif of the Outsider

Starting with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the hope for the rejuvenation of presidency in American cinema has been associated with the arrival of an outsider to the political system (Thompson 1986; Neve 2000). The trend seems to continue: in Man of the Year, comedian Dobbs presents himself as an antithesis to party politics and interest group democracy. In Dave, a ‘caring manager of a neighborhood employment agency’ (Neve 2000: 27) serves American people better than the actual president, and the film turns into ‘a saga of the simple but goodhearted ordinary man fighting the foul and ubiquitous powers of self-interest and corruption’ (Van Zoonen 2005: 111). In The American President, it is the female lobbyist who encourages president to take honest and high-minded policy decisions. Bourdieu (1991, cited in Van Zoonen 2004) argues that pervasive cynicism in citizens’ views of politics can be attributed to the monopoly of professional politicians over the field. Therefore, the motif of the outsider is deeply rooted in popular culture’s representations of politics.

Role of Media

The three films present strikingly different interpretations of the role of media in American democracy. In Dave, media appears in its traditional watchdog role. When Alexander tries to intimidate Kovic, Dave threatens to reveal his financial conspiracy: he points out of the window and reminds ‘the press corps is right out there’.  In The American President, media is portrayed as aggressive and intrusive. When Shepherd’s decision to date Sydney attracts criticism from his Chief-of-Staff, president tries to rehabilitate himself by arguing other presidents, for example Wilson, were also seeing women during their terms in office. The following dialogue illustrates Shepherd’s deep discontent with media fueled personalization of politics:

Chief-of-Staff: The difference is, he [Wilson] didn’t have to be president on television.
President Shepherd: This is not the business of the American people!
Chief-of-Staff: With all due respect, sir, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business.

Man of the Year is a sharp and bitter criticism of media conduct. Dobbs refuses to spend money on political advertising saying ‘candidates are not products’. He also wonders why Congress is half-empty when important legislation is being passed. Dobbs suggests congresspersons are too busy with their trips to lobbyists and television appearances. His observations are close to reality: in his famous book The Assault on Reason, Al Gore (2007) laments that in the Age of Television politicians are more preoccupied with collecting money from special interests to finance advertising campaigns than with actual policymaking.

Comprehensive criticism of media influence on politics is voiced by Dobbs’ adviser, Eddie Langston, who deplores that television ‘makes everything seem credible’:  
If everything seems credible then nothing seems credible. You know, TV puts everybody in those boxes, side-by-side. On one side, there’s this certifiable lunatic who says the Holocaust never happened. And next to him is this noted, honored historian who knows all about the Holocaust. And now, there they sit, side-by-side, they look like equals! Everything they say seems to be credible. And so, as it goes on, nothing seems credible anymore! We just stopped listening! 

This lament mirrors modernists’ accusations of television’s tendency to trivialize public discourse (Postman 2006). Man of the Year demonstrates that ‘[t]ruth has become the commodity of those…who make it the most moving, the most involving, and the most provocative’ (Barney 2001: 2332). In other words, truth ‘can be created and sold with clever propaganda and public relations skills’ (Gore 2007: 60).

Man of the Year also features an interesting discussion of the role of Internet. Three hours after Dobbs announces his decision to run for president, Internet is flooded with messages in support of his nomination. Dobbs’ campaign manager calls it a grassroot movement fueled by ‘the power of Internet and cult of personality’. Many scholars associate the hopes for democratic revival with this new medium (Van Zoonen 2005; Gore 2007). However, Internet remains vulnerable to manipulation and sensationalism, just like any other media. 

Role of Special Interests

All the films acknowledge the prominent role of lobbies and interest groups in American politics. While media scholarship places the agenda-setting function with journalists (McCombs & Shaw 1972; Walgrave & Van Aelst 2006), in The American President, this power belongs to lobbyists, epitomized in Sydney’s remark that on the election day people care about what she tells them to care about. The motif of the power of the military-industrial complex appears in Dave, where Kovic dares severing Mitchell’s agreements with delinquent defense contractors. In Man of the Year, Dobbs juxtaposes himself to his competitors who are doing ‘special favors to special people’ and forgetting about the poor who ‘cannot afford a lobbyist’. Again, the three films paint a realistic picture here, since many scholars observe that contemporary politics is transforming into ‘[p]atronage of group-centered policies in exchange for group support’ (Patterson 2002: 61).

President’s Relations with Advisers

The West Wing has been criticized trying to sell the image of a White House ‘devoid of backstabbing, jockeying for position, and personal ambition’ (Gans-Boriskin & Tisinger 2005: 102), a White House where ‘senior staff are almost religiously devoted to their leader’ (Roggeveen 2002: 64). The American President constructs a similar image, but the fact that both the film and the series were directed by Aaron Sorkin can serve as an explanation. In Man of the Year, Dobbs’ team is loyal and supportive because they have worked together on television for many years. Such films portray presidency as a complex institution rather than a single person (Beavers 2002) and communicate ‘a sense of collective heroism embodied in a communal presidency’ (Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles 2002: 213).

Thompson (1986) argues ‘films that depict politics as a clash of power rather than a defense of basic ideals…[are] unpalatable’ (28). Director of Dave, confesses that in a commercially successful movie, politicians should be ‘as Americans would like them to be, driven by idealism, rather than as they are, partisan and opportunistic’ (Ross 1999, cited in Clark 1999: 33). It is therefore surprising that only Dave paints a picture of a White House full of tension and competition, where Mitchell’s Chief-of-Staff plots against the Vice-President relying on support from Communications Director. In all of the three movies, however, president is depicted as capable of swift and independent action, and this is perhaps the point of their departure from reality.

Family

Family is a recurring theme in all the films. In Dave, the First Lady is tired of her husband’s neverending affairs yet puts on her public face, aware that the failure of their marriage would attract negative publicity. In The American President, Shepherd wins the election on the back of sympathy because of his wife’s death. When he is about to enter a relationship with Sydney, his Chief-of-Staff suggests that in the election year it is better that his advisers ‘make certain arrangements that will ensure total privacy’ for female companionship – a suggestion vociferously rejected by the president. In Man of the Year, Dobbs realizes he is at a disadvantage compared to other candidates who are all ‘family men’, which makes him wonder if he should get married before the presidential debate. Thus, all the three films firmly assign politicians’ family life to the public, not private, sphere.

In contemporary politics, family maters a lot for presidents and presidential candidates. Having deconstructed Bush and Kerry’s appearance on a popular talk show about family issues, Van Zoonen et al. (2005) conclude personal lives of the candidates were perceived as a role model for American families and a ‘legitimate point of departure for their political positions’ (332).

Scandal

In Man of the Year, Dobbs wittingly remarks that he is not even president of the United States yet, and he is involved in a scandal with a woman. President Mitchell from Dave is an incorrigible philander, and Shepherd’s relationship with Sydney in The American President also has a scandalous flavor. The question is whether such scandals are categorized as a private or public matter. In two films, involvement with a woman allegedly has consequences for the public: in Dave, Mitchell’s affair brings about an elaborate cover-up conspiracy, while in Man of the Year, Dobbs’ relationship with Eleanor evokes fears about electoral fraud. On the contrary, Sheperd reiterates that ‘[t]he White House doesn’t comment on the president’s personal life’ and dismisses ‘character attacks’ by his opponent. Surprisingly, the latter interpretation of scandal appears to be realistic: many Americans perceived the Clinton-Lewinsky affair as a private matter (Sonner & Wilcox 1999; Shah et al. 2002; Yioutas & Segvic 2003) and rejected ‘the notion that a higher standard of morality and public disclosure of sexual behavior should be imposed on a president than on private citizens’ (Lawrence & Bennett 2001: 432).

Public Image

In all the three films, a successful president is framed as being common, engaging, and entertaining. Dobbs’ campaign manager encourages him to rely on his usual entertaining style, arguing that ‘serious issues put us to sleep’ while ‘comedy sells’. Dobbs wants to be treated like a real politician, yet he mocks his opponents for being ‘borrowed from a wax museum’ and wins the presidential debate with sharp political satire. He pursues a policy of full disclosure and admits to smoking marijuana (and inhaling), watching porn, and visiting a prostitute. Such strategy of humanization ‘potentially strengthens the identification with viewers’ insecurities and foibles’ (Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles 2002: 214).

In Dave, when Kovic stands in for Mitchell, media hails the transformation of a ‘zombie’ president into an accessible and caring man. Shepherd also gains public support by entering the relationship with Sydney and showing his human side.    
Personalization is a well documented feature of contemporary politics. Hart (1999, cited in Neve 2000) argues politicians ‘are increasingly seen intimately and personally, rather than in terms of their public roles’ because of ‘electoral strategy at a time of ideological consensus…[and]…the desire of voters to know the private as well as the public story of politicians and celebrities of all types’ (20).

Implications for Theory

There are reservations about drawing any conclusions about the influence of the aforementioned films on political attitudes and behavior before an experimental study of media effects has been conducted. However, their potential impact on citizens’ attitudes to politics and presidency can be discussed. The genre of comedy is believed to have little semblance to real life, yet ‘situation comedies with no explicit political content might be seen as satires’ (Street 2000b: 20); they may encourage the public to reflect on dilemmas of political life, evaluate politicians’ moral stands, and articulate political hopes and ideals (Van Zoonen 2005).

On the one hand, the three films construct an appealing image of presidency – due to their focus on personal and popular. Personal life of presidents is framed as a human drama to which citizens can relate on the basis of their own experiences. However, personalization has a darker side: as Hart (1999, cited in Neve 2000) argues, ‘Americans have been led into a relationship of emotional intimacy with their leaders, yet this intimacy has substituted for rather than deepened understanding of the way public office, and the public realm generally, has operated’ (21).

Furthermore, the presence of the themes of conspiracy and corruption may amplify political apathy and cynicism. Research by Patterson (2002) reveals that ‘[f]or those who believe politics includes too much theater, deceit, fighting, and pandering, participation rates are lower than for those who feel differently’ (59-60). Studies on films featuring government conspiracy show that such portrayals of politics are detrimental to political participation and trust. Butler et al. (1995) discovered ‘viewing JFK was associated with a significant decrease in viewers’ reported intentions to vote or make political contributions’ (237). However, a contrary trend has also been documented: viewing JFK ‘enhanced intentions among some viewers to become more personally informed about political issues in the future’ (Butler et al. 1995: 250). So, cynical portrayals of the political system can serve a higher purpose: Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles (2002) believe that ‘[a] more adversarial public and a more questioning citizenry may prove to be a more political public’ (224).

Is contemporary public more ignorant, less politically engaged, and more easily misguided than before the Age of Television? To answer this question, it is necessary to look at the claims by modernist scholars concerning the convergence of popular culture and politics as well as at criticism of their claims. Specifically, the article will discuss whether the crisis of public communication is taking place, whether television culture is responsible for that, and whether articulations of politics with popular culture are beneficial or detrimental to citizenship and democracy.

Popular culture’s penetration of previously sacred realms of politics and public discourse is despised by many. It is often viewed as harming the functioning of the public sphere and democracy. Postman (2006) puts forward a persuasive case against television overtaking printed word as the dominant medium of political communication. He argues material forms of discourse – such as spoken word, print, or image – determine what messages can be comfortably expressed within a particular culture and consequently define the content of that culture. Postman (2006) shows how each medium imposes its own epistemology and forms of truth-telling. Some forms of truth-telling are superior to others: printed word is preferable to television because it provides for a discourse that is coherent, serious, rational, reflective, and impersonate. On the contrary, public information in the Age of Television is characterized by irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence:

“[Television] is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment” (Postman 2006: 141).

Democracy theory presupposes the existence of well-informed citizenry capable of making rational decisions aimed at maximizing public good, and television culture is seen as unable to ensure this.

Similarly to Postman, Gore (2007) looks back nostalgically at the early print culture with its open access to receiving and contributing information, meritocracy of ideas, and ‘an unspoken duty to search for general agreement’ (13). Modernist scholars argue Western societies are facing a crisis of public communication due to permanent campaigning and politicians’ obsession with publicity, resulting in widespread cynicism and historically low turnout rates (Blumler 1999). This crisis is brought about by depoliticization of public discourse, personalization of politics, representation of politics as a game, and prevalence of negative news about politics (Blumler 1992; Blumler & Gurevitch 1995, cited in Brants 1998).

However, many contemporary scholars view the ongoing convergence of popular culture and politics as an interesting postmodern phenomenon which might as well be beneficial, rather than detrimental, to citizenship and democracy. Instances of such convergence ‘should not be cynically dismissed as trivial moments in the ever-changing popular culture scene’ but rather be viewed as ‘powerful emblems of the ways in which political aspirations both express themselves within, and draw inspiration from popular culture’ (Cloonan & Street 1998: 38).

Van Zoonen (2004) argues entertainment has a potential for making citizenship pleasurable. Politics has to be communicated effectively to be able to bridge the gap between citizens and elected officials, so ‘[e]veryday concerns and human interests must be addressed to make news relevant’ (Hagen 1997: 414). Citizens feel that the political field is distant and non-representative, hence the need to include the language of the lifeworld into public communication (Gamson 1998, cited in Blumler 1999). Postmodern approach to politics implies a broader understanding of what belongs to the field and therefore can bridge the divide between public and private: ‘[p]olitics has to be connected to the everyday culture of its citizens; otherwise it becomes an alien sphere, occupied by strangers no one cares and bothers about’ (Van Zoonen 2004: 3). This requires innovative ways of public communication (Buckingham 1997).

Furthermore, packaging information as entertainment reduces cognitive costs of paying attention (Baum 2002). This is especially relevant given the everyday life’s constraints on citizenship such as long working hours, stress, and erosion of social capital (Tonn & Petrich 1998). Viewers of ‘soft news’ have an opportunity to learn about political issues passively (Neuman et al. 1992; Zukin & Snyder 1984, cited in Baum 2002). Such viewers usually do not take an active interest in politics and would stay less informed but for entertainment programs or films about politics. Political awareness becomes an incidental by-product of media consumption with the help of the phenomenon referred to as ‘piggybacking’. It is made possible by the so-called ‘cheap framing’ with a focus on ‘human interest’ aspect of politics and policymaking. However, this ‘infotainment’ can be dangerous when it becomes the dominant form of representation of politics, when it distorts the image of politics, or when it is used to conceal something from the public (Brants 1998).

It is possible to hypothesize that viewing Dave, The American President, and Man of the Year has mixed results on political participation and trust. However, the films have a potential for sparking citizens’ interest in politics and providing them with skills to critically analyze politicians’ performance.

 


 

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