This past weekend, The White House hosted Pixar's filmmakers for a Father's Day screening of Monster's University. The White House movie theater has been the cinema-in-chief to Presidents for the last 70 years. If those walls could talk.
Maybe they can. Paul Fischer, the White House projectionist from 1953-1986, was the first Netflix queue in American history. His meticulous records show every film the Presidents watched during their time in office. Eisenhower loved spaghetti westerns. Reagan once put off preparing a G7 summit because he was watching The Sound of Music. The last movie President Kennedy -- a James Bond enthusiast -- ever watched is believed to be From Russia With Love. President Johnson was no film fanatic, but he did have one favorite that he watched over and over: a 10 minute homage to himself, narrated by Gregory Peck. LBJ was his own favorite movie star.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Mickey Mouse fan) converted an old cloak room into the theater, which holds 40 well-upholstered seats set behind a row of large armchairs. For decades it had a grandma-style floral design; today it is a vision in red. The makeover isn't the only way the theater has evolved. The films themselves provide a lens into the America each president served. The first movie ever screened at the White House in 1915 was The Birth of a Nation, which portrays the Klu Klux Klan as American saviors. This year, president Obama used the theater to celebrate Black History Month.
President Reagan -- the all-time perfect synthesis of Hollywood and Washington -- watched surprisingly few films in The White House. The most prolific movie watcher turns out to be Jimmy Carter, who on average watched a film every three days -- including the first X-rated movie to be screened at the White House, Midnight Cowboy. Westerns have long been a presidential favorite. Bill Clinton, who watched High Noon 17 times in office, believed that a president could naturally relate to a cowboy trying to do right. "It's no accident that politicians see themselves as Gary Cooper in High Noon." he has said. "Any time you're alone and you feel you're not getting the support you need, Cooper's Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor."
Reel life and real life have been entangled since the start of films. Can we read anything into the fact that Nixon watched Patton -- a film that glorifies war and the men who wage it -- over and over in the weeks before escalating the Vietnam War, obsessively quoting it to White House aides and forcing Kissinger to watch it -- twice? It would be too cute by half to suggest that a film influenced policy (although David Frost asked Nixon just that). But it may serve as a prism into the mind of a president, a reflection of Nixon's beliefs about leadership and the script he hoped his presidency would follow. By the end of his life, Nixon had a decidedly lower opinion of Hollywood (perhaps influenced by Watergate, the scandal that launched a thousand films). In his autobiography, California-born Nixon wrote, "Hollywood is sick...Its values are not those of mainstream America."
They say we are what we eat -- are we also, then, what we watch? Like Clinton's saxophone or Reagan's ranching, our presidents' movie picks offer a glimpse of what they are like off-duty, when they are not busy leading the free world. Bush wrote in his memoir that he first knew he would get along with Tony Blair after they watched Meet the Parents together at Camp David. Dubya was also an avid Austin Powers fan who often amused White House staffers with his impression of Dr. Evil.
President Obama's White House screening room has been busy. Last fall, the president made headlines when he held a screening for Lincoln with Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, and members of Congress. No Republicans chose to attend (John Boehner and Mitch McConnell turned down the invite). Other films Obama has screened include the documentary Nuclear Tipping Point, HBO's The Pacific, Slumdog Millionaire, and Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep recounted her experience at the screening, where Michelle Obama told her "'I love you.' I peed a little bit," Streep said.
What will Obama watch next? The man has choices (among Obama's many firsts -- he became the first president to watch a film in 3D at the White House). Perhaps he'll watch himself. After Obama screened Lincoln, Spielberg released "Steven Spielberg's Obama (starring Daniel Day-Lewis)." Tracy Morgan as Joe Biden is alone worthy of a White House premiere, and Spielberg's little joke reminds us of the very real intersection between film and politics.
In his second term, President Obama will hope for one of Hollywood's happy endings. To get through the budget wars and partisan battles ahead, Obama should perhaps think on Ronald Reagan's celebrated words: that when all is said and done, the presidency is "the role of a lifetime."