[This article appeared in the March/April 1996 issue of Conservative Review.]


The American President

(and His Oh-So-Sweet, but Rough, “Significant Other”) 

Dwight D. Murphey

 Wichita State University


            There was once a time when leftist propaganda destroyed much of its own efficacy by its sordid graininess, the product of proletarian-directed content being published on cheap paper with smeared newsprint.  Those days, however, have long since passed.  Hollywood has turned out well-made propaganda for several decades, but in recent years it has developed its cinematography, sound and acting to a level where many pictures are masterpieces – including the many with a leftist ideological message.

            Adolf Hitler had Leni Riefenstahl, one of the great photographic geniuses of all time, to film the 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally and the 1963 Olympics in Berlin.  Just the same, Hitler’s propaganda chief, Dr. Goebbels, were he alive today, would no doubt envy the cinematic techniques that are now on the film-maker’s palette.  There can be no question but that he would admire, too, the ready-made receptivity of today’s viewing public in the United States.  Here, so many people are willing to accept any amount of propaganda so long as it is well packaged, told with an enticing story, and toes the line of being politically correct so that they need not feel embarrassed by it.  Goebbels would discover that it isn’t just in a totalitarian society that propaganda is effective; well-done propaganda doesn’t take force to put itself across; free people in a democracy, under the circumstances of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, are not only willing, but eager, to chuckle and cry along with it.  The individuals who make up our public are fundamentally passive.  Much of the time, they are anxious to defend the forces that manipulate them.

            Ordinarily, the friends I am with (quite likeable folks who are middle class and in one or the other of the professions) when my wife and I see a movie have been very defensive and irritated if I make even the mildest reference to the fact that the movie we saw had a leftist message and isn’t to be taken fully at face value.  They haven’t been ready to admit any such problem with, say, Reds a few years ago, about the American radical Jack Reed who came to be interred inside the walls of the Kremlin, or the more recent Sins of Our Fathers, the seemingly true expose of the injustices done by British courts to a Che-admiring Irish radical.  The very suggestion that propaganda has been laid on them has offended them – and they usually blame not the propaganda but anyone who points it out.

            I did see one difference in the case of The American President.  Our friends came out of the theater asking me what I thought about the heavy political-ideological baggage.  Unlike on other occasions, they were anxious to acknowledge its presence.  Not that it angered them.  They weren’t moved to reflect on how they had been used, or to ponder just how it is that a free society can operate if one side’s propaganda becomes so ubiquitous that it fills even one (indeed, most) of the more sparkling movies of the season.  The passivity was still there.  But they did, at least, know they had just paid good money to enjoy a political sermon.

            So much has been written about the 1995 film The American President that we might feel that perhaps everything has been said.  That is, however, by no means true; there is still much that is serious to say about it.  I assume most readers will have seen the movie, but in case anyone has not, here, first, is a synopsis: 

The Merry Widower

            President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, is riding the crest of a 63% public approval rating.  In his legislative package, as the State of the Union speech approaches, he is giving top priority to a Crime Bill from which, for the sake of political expediency, handgun and assault weapon prohibitions have been dropped.  The package secondarily includes an environmental bill commanding a 10% reduction in fossil fuel emissions to address “the calamity of global warming.”  The head of the Global Defense Council, a major environmental activist group, says this would be the most important piece of environmental legislation in history; but the GDC nevertheless decides that the world’s survival requires the GDC to press for more – a 20% reduction.

            Sydney Ellen Wade, played by a sparklingly feminine but stridently energetic Annette Bening, is hired by the GDC as a highly-paid lobbyist to obtain this larger reduction.  She meets the President in the White House, who is impressed by her pluck and, as a widower, finds his hormones coming alive in her presence.  A romance develops, and he promises her that he will throw his support behind a bill requiring a 20% reduction in fossil fuel emissions if the GDC can line up 24 of the 34 swing votes that would be needed to pass the bill in the House.  Sydney and the GDC go mightily to work, and predictably the number of needed votes dwindles.

            In the meantime, the romance flourishes quickly.  Sydney speaks French at an East Room reception for the president of France and his wife; and she and President Shepherd dance to hundreds of admiring eyes.  That is to say, all are admiring except those of Senate minority leader Robert Rumson of Kansas, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who immediately reads salacious content and cynical political advantage into the president’s “having a girlfriend.”

            The love affair moves on to the bedroom fairly quickly in an illustration of the wholesomeness of sex when it is enjoyed between two nice people who have the most decent intentions.  After a meatloaf dinner enjoyed by the president, his daughter Lucy, and Sydney, the president is called away to plan the bombing of Libya in response to some enormity committed by its government. The bombing is a subplot, but one that brings out both the president’s decisiveness, despite his lack of military service, and his compassion, illustrated by his concern over the janitors who are going to die in the early-morning explosion.  (We see how far the Left has come from its earlier proletarianism when the president decides to kill a few custodians at night rather than a building full of intelligence operatives during the daytime.)

            By the time the two grownups get together again, Sydney disappears into another room and comes back into the president’s bedroom dressed only in a shirt, and ready for a (state of the) union of a different sort.  It is a sweet and exciting occasion, and the film pans quickly, in contrast, to a speech by Republican Senator Rumson at a conservative gathering where he is declaiming nastily about “traditional American values.”

            A crisis comes when an old FBI file is released to the press containing a photo of Sydney burning an American flag at an anti-apartheid rally thirteen years before.  The president’s approval rating has been falling anyway because of public speculation about the romance; but now it plummets, threatening Congressional support for the Crime Bill as well as for the fossil fuel legislation.

            The White House discovers, however (right about the time the Global Defense Council lines up the final needed vote to carry out its end of the deal the president made with Sydney), that it can get much-needed support for the Crime Bill from certain “Motown congressmen” if only the administration will drop its support for fossil fuel reduction.  This is too good to pass up, so the environmental bill is scuttled.  It becomes clear, then, that Sydney has failed in what the GDC hired her for, and so they fire her.  Sydney, disgusted with the president’s bad faith and political shenanigans, walks out on him.  He reaches bottom.

            But President Shepherd’s fundamental character as a liberal stalwart shines through and saves the day.  He holds a press conference where he displays his sterling “character” by a manly defense of everything liberal.  He tells how flag burning and protest are patriotic, even imperative, uses of the precious freedoms we enjoy as Americans; how the ACLU is something he’s proud to be “a cad-carrying member” of; how the Crime Bill should be thrown out so that a new one can be put forward that will ban all handguns and assault weapons; how the environmental bill should, indeed, call not for a 10% but for a 20% reduction in fossil fuel emissions.  His staff and the press look on in awe. 

            So does Sydney Ellen Wade, who sees that indeed the president does intend to be a man of character and who returns to affirm her love for him.  As the movie ends, the romance is back in swing, although there is a conspicuous absence of any suggestion of marriage.

            Through it all, there are innumerable political-ideological tag-lines, with all sorts of issues touched upon.  The film is a product of Castle Rock Entertainment, a Turner Company, so that those of us who have been waiting to see just when the marriage of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda would bear ideological fruit can stop wondering.  Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox round out a stellar cast, and it is worth noting that Frank Capra III (no doubt issue to the line of the selfsame Frank Capra who set such marvelous precedents for captivating propaganda two generations ago) is an assistant director.

            The main ideological theme of the film has to do with “global warming.” 

The Threat of Mental and Moral Absolutism

            An important element is raised by the fact that the film presents all liberal positions – and especially the one about “global warming” – as self-evidently true, with no need for evidence or argument.  This is a basic supposition of the movie, and every effort is made to ensure that the audience is seduced into accepting it.

            I started this article with comments about the propaganda content of contemporary film entertainment.  Beyond the mere awareness that it is propaganda, we need to understand how that propaganda relates to the larger cultural picture.

            In my writing for many years I have stressed the importance of the role that an alienated intelligentsia has played in Europe and America since approximately 1820.  Our “bourgeois” society, the mainstream of which is a commercial and professional middle class, has had no intellectual subculture appropriate to itself, but rather one that essentially hates it and embraces a worldview very much at odds with its own.  Modern Hollywood, with its steady drumbeat of high-quality leftist films, is part of that long-term phenomenon.

            I have also stressed that an historic problem for “bourgeois” societies has been that, with only rare exceptions historically, they have not found it within themselves to generate a serious interest in ideas.  They have contented themselves to accept the incubus of a hostile intellectual culture, which is inevitable if the mainstream’s own members are intellectually passive.  Where, say, is the mass readership that a conservative publisher might find for a serious conservative book?  The Left enjoys such a readership, which comes not entirely from the intelligentsia itself but also from “educated” middle class individuals who have been inculcated with the essential biases of the Left and see it as self-flattering to keep themselves current with what the media, controlled overwhelmingly by the intelligentsia, determines to be in vogue.

            Yet another thing to consider is that the Left, despite all its lip-service to “democracy,” is fundamentally of a totalitarian frame of mind.  It is a secular religion, and no more wishes to brook dissent than have most other religions during their periods of ascendancy.  We have seen various episodes in the history of American “liberalism” in which this totalitarianism has come to the fore.  The most recent and continuing of these is the absolute, militantly intolerant insistence on “political correctness.”  (To see how compelling this is, note that yet another Martin Luther King Day has come and gone without the slightest ripple of criticism of King in the mass media.)

            I would not be prepared to predict that this mental and moral absolutism will come to prevail fully in the United States.  But if “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” we should acknowledge the danger.  The other major “democracies,” such as in Europe and Canada, literally make it a crime to utter certain ideas that aren’t approved.  Our First Amendment heritage, which “liberals” have historically found much to their own advantage and therefore have tended for tactical reasons to raise to an absolute, ironically stand in the way of that here.

            But there are many who would treat as a moral leper anyone who argues, no matter how rationally and genteelly, for idea that challenges orthodox liberal opinion.  This came home to me recently after I sent a review copy of my book on “issues in American history – a conservative scholar’s perspective” to a magazine editor for possible review.  The editor wrote me a snappy refusal, telling me that she “threw it away” after “reading one paragraph,” and that it is “very inappropriate – especially without a warning and for children.”  So she will do her bit to kill my book by silence, as all the while our nation’s librarians will annually commemorate “censorship day” and “book burning,” decrying any instance in which something liberal is in any way constrained.  As I read her words, it doesn’t seem farfetched to surmise that her mentality is such that she is not far from supporting a law making it, say, a “hate crime” for me to write a book placing in perspective what the Ohio National Guard did at Kent State, etc.  Or perhaps she would gladly see me ride a tumbrel to the guillotine.

            So we ought, at least, to beware. Liberal intolerance dominates our time.  More importantly, those who oppose it are ruthlessly marginalized.            

The Inversion of Alienation and Conservatism

            The American President does something that may surprise conservatives.  It presents activist liberalism as the true Americanism, manifesting a patriotic love-of-country, while it is conservatism that is alienated and out-of-sorts with the people and their heritage.

            “Liberalism” has been the dominant ethos in the United States for so long that it has become able to assert a conservatism of its own.  Its opponents can be cast as the radicals who seek to tear down what is valuable.  This is established not only in the world of ideas, but in the vast institutions and interests have come into being and that identify their fate with liberalism.

            The truth is that each side in the ideological debate has something to defend, something to oppose.  This lends itself to a certain relativism; those who don’t involve themselves enough with the ideas to take them seriously can conclude that “they’re both pretty much the same and can’t claim to be especially conservative (or radical).”

            Perhaps this is just as well.  Friedrich Hayek had a chapter in his The Constitution of Liberty entitled “Why I am not a conservative.”  He stressed that as a classical liberal advocate of individual liberty he had recourse to principles, not simply to affection for a past condition of society.  While classical liberalism has come to be called “conservatism” in twentieth century America, because “liberalism” was preempted by the Left and because classical liberals did indeed want to preserve the essence of America’s individualist commitment, they have always known that their classical liberalism was at one time a revolutionary creed.  What American “conservatives” could do to put themselves back into that tradition, regaining the moral high ground from the Left, would be precisely to see themselves as agents of social change, opposing corruption and abuse wherever found.  That impetus was lost in the nineteenth century when classical liberalism went on the defensive against the burgeoning Left.

            The members of the “freshman class” in the House after the 1994 elections are reformist, but that can be taken a good deal further into all areas of our national life.  [Note in 2003: It was a matter of great disappointment to conservatives that the “Contract with America” sponsored by this “class of 1994” came to so very little.]

            This is not to say that reliance can be placed on pure cerebration.  “Rationalism” has been shown to lend itself to silliness and often to doctrinaire cold-heartedness and ruthlessness.  It will be well at all times to temper the concern for “principles” with the lessons that traditionalist conservatives have to offer, with their deep suspicion of cerebrally-hatched schemes.

            Whether conservatives can appeal effectively to a reverence for the American past will depend upon whether any decent image of that past can be retained – or, what is no doubt more necessary now after many years of relentless attacks upon that past, reconstructed.  Our younger generations have been conditioned to think of earlier Americans in unfavorable terms.  They will not naturally give their allegiance to a past that they see as racist, violent and uncaring.  That is why the historic issues – symbols of what America has been – are not simply academic, but living issues for our present and our future. 

Sexual ‘Liberation” as Wholesome Family Values in Place of Unloving, Conservative, ‘Anal-Retentive’ Family Values

Nothing is said about it in so many words, but one of the issues for which The American President makes the Left’s case is that of sexual liberation.  Sydney Ellen Wade delights the president’s young daughter and strikes up a loving family relationship with her and the president, so that the two grown-up’s sleeping together a few feet down the hall from the daughter’s bedroom seems a refreshing affirmation of genuine good feeling.  Set off against this is Republican Senator Rumson’s apparently demagogic appeals to “family values” before an audience of presumptive bigots at a conservative banquet.

            The message is that sex without marriage is not only all right, but is consistent with all that is wholesome even in a president whom the film wants us, at the end, to feel has reached a pinnacle of decency and greatness.  On this, perhaps more than on any other issue, we see the impress of the New Left’s do-you-own-thing worldview.

            One of the points in my article on homosexuality in a recent issue of Conservative Review had to do with the role that discretion plays in sexual ethics.  Those who desire, as conservatives do, to maintain the primacy of marriage as the focus for sexual energies need not insist that sexual morality requires that a widower in his forties and an unmarried woman in her thirties not have sex.  Such a premise is one with which most people would reasonably be uncomfortable, since it seems disproportionately to subordinate private life to an abstraction.  What sexual ethics should demand is not that they be Puritans, but that they be discreet.  The fact that they are having sex should be entirely private, unknown to anyone but themselves, since in that way the social order’s fealty to marriage can be left intact.  This, of course, is the very opposite of the Left’s purpose in trumpeting public displays of sex outside of marriage; it is the Left’s wish to overthrow monogamy.  The American President is part of that campaign. 

Assorted Political and Ideological Issues

            The movie touches on a whole rage of debatable issues, presenting each as though the liberal position is obviously the sensible and virtuous one.  The film is such a “Democratic campaign commercial” that the Federal Election Commission would be well advised to consider whether all of its costs and revenues should not be considered as counting toward the Democrats’ income-raising and spending limits for 1996.  It deserves a rebuttal on each point, but it is an understatement to say that conservatives and Republicans will be “hard pressed” to package their philosophy in so delightful a form.  The Hollywood intelligentsia clearly has the victory here.

            “Global warming,” attributed mostly to fossil fuel emissions, is the central theme of the film.  That entire subject deserves a separate article. 


Dwight D. Murphey is an associate editor of Conservative Review and a professor of business law at Wichita State University.  He is the author of a number of books on social philosophy.