The American President

Last night I read Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair essay on Barack Obama. If you’d like a take how the VF article portrays Obama and what it means for his campaign, please visit Anne Helen Petersen’s blog, “Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.” She’s an incredible media scholar: her blog and classic Hollywood scandals column at the Hairpin rate very high on my must-read list. But when I read Lewis, I wasn’t thinking of Obama’s campaign in particular. Here’s the part that stood out to me:

“Eighteen months into the office [Obama] reupholstered the two chairs in his sitting area.“The chairs were kind of greasy. I was starting to think, Folks are going to start talking about us,” [he said]…And he took one look at the bookshelves, filled with china, and thought, This won’t do. “They had a bunch of plates in there,” he says, a little incredulously. “I’m not a dish guy.” The dishes he replaced with the original applications for several famous patents and patent models—Samuel Morse’s 1849 model for the first telegraph, for instance, which he pointed to and said, “This is the start of the Internet right here.”

Remind anyone else of a certain movie?

1995. Remember The American President, starring Michael Douglas as a widowed commander-in-chief and Annette Bening as the spunky environmental lobbyist who begins dating him, to a general media firestorm and vicious opposition criticism? Written by Aaron Sorkin, this movie was apparently the genesis for his television show The West Wing and seems almost psychic in its portrayal of the complexity of presidents’ private lives. We, the audience, know that the Douglas and Bening characters are both wholesomely smitten with each other and are  not whiling away the hours secretly or illegally discussing environmental policy, but….how to do we know?

It’s because Bening–outwardly feisty, but also patriotically intimidated and impressed by the presidency–acts as a kind of ‘normal person’ lens into the White House. In that way, The American President is an old-fashioned movie. You could imagine Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as these characters. Bening, in a fictional context, gets to see the real president as a down-to-earth guy and single father. What makes him a regular guy (in an ironic parallel with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) is his relationship to objects. There’s a scene where Bening is visiting the White House and Douglas describes the White House China Room as the “Dish Room,” signaling that he’s not pretentious enough to care about china or expensive things, solely because they’re expensive.

When I read the Obama quote, I joked on Facebook that the VF article was a sign that men “don’t get china.” Even my friend J., defending his fellow man, called it an “endearing” trait in the context of the scene. And I agree. I think that’s why Hollywood and the media use recognizable details like this, to humanize the presidency, whether onscreen or in the pages of Vanity Fair. That’s our fantasy president as the protagonist and romantic lead: the guy who calls it “the Dish Room.”

“Be yourself. And compliment her on her shoes.”

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