If George Bush were a film director rather than president, a studio chief would shut down his movie and demand a major rewrite. That’s because Bush started off making a John Wayne Western and instead is ending up with “Apocalypse Now.”
Given his dilemma, Bush might examine the experience of a previous president who not only understood rewrites but also liked movies. During his turbulent first Hundred Days in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt incredibly took time out to help rewrite a screenplay on a subject that surely would interest George Bush: It dealt with a president who decided to dissolve Congress and take government policy into his own hands.
FDR’s bizarre flight into filmmaking is related in a new book by Jonathan Alter titled “The Defining Moment,” which focuses on that president’s historic adventure to rescue the American economy.
With banks slamming shut their vaults all over the country and the stock market in collapse, FDR became intrigued by a film script submitted to him by, of all people, William Randolph Hearst. The renegade publisher was himself in dire straits and felt the presidential imprimatur on a film could improve his chances of getting his movie off the ground.
Hearst also hoped the message of his script would get through to the new president. The nation was in such a mess, he’d concluded, that only a dictator, not a mere president, could save the day.
To Hearst’s delight (and surprise), FDR rewarded him with a letter stating that this was “an intensely interesting picture” and that he would gladly offer plot suggestions and rewrites in his spare time.
In raw outline, here was the plot: A new American president, named Jud Hammond, faces a deadlocked government and a nation in crisis. Severely hurt in an automobile accident, Hammond has an epiphany: The only way to get his nation moving is to declare martial law, then line up major “gangsters” to face a firing squad at the Statue of Liberty. The film ends with President Hammond suffering a terminal heart attack, while also being proclaimed a great American president for saving his country from ruin.
FDR liked the idea that the “bad guys” in the script were prototypical Republican hacks. He also told Hearst that he didn’t like an attempted assassination scene — FDR himself had narrowly escaped being shot shortly before assuming the presidency. Oddly, the totalitarian drift of the plot didn’t seem to bother FDR; it might even have provided a form of wish fulfillment. By 1933, a disturbing number of influential figures were displaying serious doubts whether democratic institutions or free markets could cope with economic collapse and the rise of Fascism.
But while FDR seemed to enjoy dabbling with Hearst’s script, its bizarre themes did not invade his policy decisions, much to Hearst’s frustration. Despite the intense pressures imposed on him, the new president clung to his own principles instead of those of the fictional President Hammond, though there were, to be sure, occasional lapses such as packing the Supreme Court.
FDR’s presidency was both enduring (he won four elections) and immensely successful. He became the grand architect of America’s emergence as a global power and also rewrote the social contract between the government and its citizenry.
As for the movie? “Gabriel Over the White House,” starring Walter Huston, was a minor success, but it did not establish Hearst as a Washington king-maker or a Hollywood kingpin. Indeed, the ghost-like Hearst Castle north of Cambria emerged as a suitable metaphor for his megalomaniacal fantasies.
George Bush might have liked the movie and might also have pined for President Hammond’s instant solutions, but he is not one to study history’s lessons. Indeed, were he ever to do so, he would learn that FDR left behind a prosperous and optimistic nation. Post-Iraq, America does not hold similar promise.