The intersection of Hollywood and Washington is a lush literary topic that has barely been mined, so “Celebrity-in-Chief” is at times arresting and usually fun, but thin on new ideas.
Author Alan Schroeder offers exhaustive detail, much of it trivial, about the ways in which the interests and activities of showbiz and politics — particularly Hollywood and the White House — converge, and traces the evolution of their relationship.
Schroeder, a journalism school professor at Northeastern U., contends that the trend started with FDR and reached its apotheosis in Clinton. He also allows that entertainment and politics have always been intertwined: No less than Lincoln was entertained by a musical midget from P.T. Barnum’s circus.
Schroeder offers an abundance of details on who entertained for whom, the party affiliations of stars, and the roster of entertainers who’ve performed at the White House (surprisingly, Nixon was first prez to play host to rock ‘n’ roll acts).
Some of the tidbits are irresistible even if they lack analysis. George Harrison got a WIN (Whip Inflation Now) button from President Ford. Orson Welles, an FDR fan, considered running for the Senate — and felt guilty he didn’t try to defeat fellow Wisconsin native Joe McCarthy. Paul Newman, learning that Richard Nixon would be borrowing a Jaguar that the star had used, left him a note that said: “Dear Mr. Nixon: You should have no trouble driving this car at all, because it has a very tricky clutch.”
Schroeder’s scouring turns up more nuggets. Ronald Reagan, in Chasen’s in the 1950s, wondered about the identity of the beautiful blonde who was getting so much attention (Marilyn Monroe). Bill Clinton, totally in character, praised just about every movie he screened with his actor buddies. And JFK, a savvy movie buff, told Kirk Douglas that “Seven Days in May” would be a good book to adapt. (He was prescient on two counts — it would be adapted, and it worked.)
Lauren Bacall offers: “We’re doing what they can’t do — we can sing and dance and act. They’re doing what we can’t do — they have access to power, real power. I guess we all have fantasies about the other.”
Yet a reader can’t help asking: Does this all mean anything? Schroeder says the prez “must now be able to present a version of himself that is as audience-friendly as the persona of an entertainment star.” True enough — but is that enough to make the book truly important?
Still, the book’s a fun ride, full of great anecdotes, if short on a meaningful context and gravitas.