News & Politics

What’s Playing at the White House Movie Theater?

The answer can provide insight into our nation's leaders

Former Hollywood actors Ronald and Nancy Reagan loved movies, but they watched fewer in the White House than Jimmy Carter did.

In a 2001 episode of the TV series The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet is bickering with his daughter, Ellie, while watching a movie in the White House theater. Ellie, annoyed with her father, tells him, “Dad, people are trying to watch the movie.” He responds: “You want to bet me your tuition no one in this room is going to shush me?”

In real life, Jimmy Carter expressed a similar sentiment when he told an aide early in his presidency, “Do you know I can get any movie I want?”

The White House “family theater” is indeed a place where the President of the United States can watch what he wants, say what he wants, and invite whomever he wants. And what goes on in the theater can provide insights into our nation’s leaders.

The first movie screened in the White House was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which President Woodrow Wilson famously—perhaps apocryphally—described as “history written with lightning.” Not until decades later did a silver screen became a permanent fixture at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House family theater was created in 1942 in what had been a cloakroom for visitors.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was President at the time, and he used it to watch, among other films, Mrs. Miniver, an Academy Award–winning movie about wartime England recommended by Winston Churchill.

The room features red-velvet decor with 40 theater-style seats behind four larger armchairs installed by President Dwight Eisenhower: He saw more than 200 movies in the White House theater, many of them Westerns, his favorite genre. Historians have gone back and forth over whether Eisenhower’s regular-guy persona was the true Ike or not, but his movie preferences would seem to support the view that it was.

Westerns were a lot more common in the 1950s than they are today, but Ike clearly favored silent-type, tough-guy movies. He was also discriminating. He refused to watch films featuring Robert Mitchum because Mitchum had served time for marijuana possession. This was no small sacrifice: Mitchum was a star who appeared in more than 20 movies during Eisenhower’s two terms, including 1955’s classic The Night of the Hunter.

White House projectionist Paul Fischer occasionally would try to sneak a Mitchum film past the President, but Ike would get up and walk out of the theater upon seeing the actor’s face onscreen.

We know as much as we do about presidential cinematic tastes because of Fischer, who was White House projectionist for more than three decades under seven chief executives. From 1953 to 1986, he kept handwritten records of all the movies screened at both the White House and Camp David. His notes are at the heart of a 2003 Bravo special about the theater called All the Presidents’ Movies.

Eisenhower’s successors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, seemed less interested in movies. Kennedy saw 48 while in office—including From Russia With Love, which he watched the night before his assassination. One reason he saw fewer films might have been his bad back—he had his favorite cushioned rocking chair placed in the theater. Kennedy’s relative lack of interest in films apparently didn’t extend to Hollywood starlets—he’s believed to have had flings with Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Angie Dickinson.

Johnson’s meager interest in movie watching seems to have resulted from a combination of ego and manic daily activity. While he recognized the political benefits of invitations to the White House theater, he usually fell asleep during showings. According to the late Jack Valenti, former LBJ aide and later head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Johnson would pop awake at the end of movies and ask his guests, “Did y’all like it?” Unfortunately for the weary staff, Valenti recalled, Johnson “would wake up refreshed and want to go back to his office and gather up his assistants and go back to work.”

Johnson did have a favorite film about a serious subject—himself. The President’s Country, a 1966 documentary narrated by Gregory Peck, was screened 18 times in the White House, 12 of them in Johnson’s presence. During the filming, Peck and Johnson grew close; Johnson is said to have offered Peck the post of ambassador to Ireland in a second Johnson term, which never took place.

According to Peck biographer Michael Freedland, Johnson awarded Peck the Presidential Medal of Freedom as a consolation prize before leaving the White House in 1969. Lynn Haney, another Peck biographer, wrote that the documentary, which cost $87,612 to produce, was sent to 98 US embassies around the world, but its sole domestic venue was the White House theater.

Mainstream movies returned to the theater in force during the administration of Richard Nixon, who watched more than 150 movies in the company of his Cuban-American pal, Bebe Rebozo. As Nixon aide Herb Klein noted, Rebozo made Nixon comfortable: “It was a time to relax when he was with Bebe and Bebe never tried to bring out discussions of issues.”

Nixon’s favorite movie was Patton, which he watched many times, including the night after he decided to send American troops into Cambodia in 1970. Nixon’s obsession with the biopic about World War II general George Patton became so notorious that the President felt he had to tell David Frost during their 1977 interviews that the Oscar-winning film had “no effect on my decisions.”

Nixon wasn’t in the White House the night of the Watergate break-in, but he was watching a movie—Skin Game—in the Bahamas with Rebozo and their buddy Bob Abplanalp. The last movie Nixon watched as President was Around the World in 80 Days, but even more interesting is the penultimate movie he watched that difficult summer of 1974: It’s a Wonderful Life, the Jimmy Stewart classic about a man in legal trouble who wishes he had never been born.

The most prolific movie watcher in White House history was not, as many would guess, Ronald Reagan but Jimmy Carter. Carter saw the White House theater and the ability to request movies from the MPAA as a way to make up for the time he’d gone without seeing movies while on the campaign trail. Carter asked media aide Gerald Rafshoon to make a list of the key movies he had missed.

According to the Fischer logs, Carter saw 480 movies during his single term—a time of stagflation, energy shocks, recession, and a hostage crisis. The White House theater averaged a movie every three nights, including 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, which was rated X at the time of its release. Its rating had been changed to R by the time Carter watched it.

Although he was the only President who was also a movie star, Ronald Reagan saw fewer movies in two terms at the White House than Carter saw in one. He also lacked Carter’s preference for current releases, at one point telling Fischer “the golden oldies are the ones.” His favorite film was High Noon, which Bill Clinton also was partial to.

One of Reagan’s favorite movies was The Sound of Music. According to Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, Reagan watched the Trapp family musical the night before the 1983 Williamsburg economic summit instead of reading his briefing book. When chief of staff James Baker asked why Reagan had neglected his homework, the Gipper replied, “Well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on last night.”

According to Richard Reeves, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical also provided a connection between Reagan and Clinton. In 1985, five-year-old Chelsea Clinton wrote a letter to Reagan making reference to the movie before Reagan’s controversial visit to a cemetery near Bitburg, Germany, where Nazis were buried: “Dear Mr. President: I have seen The Sound of Music. The Nazis don’t look like nice people. Please don’t go to their cemetery.”

It’s likely Reagan never saw the letter, as this was exactly the kind of argument that might have convinced him to change his mind.

Paul Fischer retired as White House projectionist in March 1986, and the MPAA generally doesn’t reveal presidential movie selections. Still, tales about chief-executive movie watching emerge.

In 1990, MPAA head Jack Valenti’s secretary told him the White House was on the line requesting a print of The Hunt for Red October, both highly anticipated and hard to get. According to former Valenti aide Matt Gerson, Valenti took the call thinking a presidential aide was on the line. He was shocked to find it was George H.W. Bush himself. Valenti responded: “Yes, Mr. President, of course, Mr. President, no problem at all, Mr. President.”

Valenti called producer Mace Neufeld in Los Angeles, who said: “Jack, don’t give me that ‘I just spoke with the President.’ Everyone wants this film—it’s not ready.” Valenti looked at Gerson and, with the speaker phone on, said: “Matt, did I or did I not just get a request directly from the commander in chief?” Neufeld came up with the print, and the Bushes watched the film that weekend.

Bush’s interest in movies paled next to Bill Clinton’s. The White House theater offered two of Clinton’s favorite things: movies and schmoozing. He held film discussions after screenings ended. Variety deputy editor Ted Johnson wrote in Politico that producer Jonathan Glickman—son of Valenti’s MPAA successor, Dan Glickman—received a presidential grilling about his film Shanghai Noon, including the question of whether Jackie Chan had served as his own stunt man.

Clinton’s heavy use of the White House theater helped hone his skills as a critic. Toward the end of his presidency, during a guest appearance on Roger Ebert & the Movies, Clinton praised Fight Club and American Beauty and, according to critic Stephanie Zacharek, “had some insightful things to say” about them.

We don’t know exactly how many films Clinton watched as President, but upon leaving the White House he declared that the best White House perk “is not Air Force One or Camp David or anything else. It’s the wonderful movie theater I get here, because people send me these movies all the time.”

George W. Bush was less of a movie buff than Clinton, but he recognized that the White House theater was a political asset. He invited the late senator Ted Kennedy to a screening of Thirteen Days, a favorably reviewed movie about JFK and the Cuban missile crisis, as part of a charm offensive aimed at securing Kennedy’s collaboration on the No Child Left Behind education-reform effort. Bush and Kennedy cooperated on the project despite their ideological differences.

Bush also screened films to signal support for a cause. A showing of the documentary Paper Clips, about an effort by Tennessee children to memorialize Holocaust victims, was reported in the New York Times and gained Bush points in the Jewish community. He likewise hosted Glory Road, about Texas Western College’s 1966 NCAA championship, the first ever for a team with five African-American starters. Bush’s guests included star Josh Lucas and members of the groundbreaking team.

Movies also matter in the realm of international relations. In his memoir, Bush recalls knowing he would get along with British first couple Tony and Cherie Blair when they suggested watching the Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro comedy Meet the Parents as an evening’s entertainment at Camp David.

President Obama has been quiet about goings-on in the White House theater, but the Obamas are said to use it mainly for enjoying movies with their two young daughters. Word has emerged of a viewing of the World War II miniseries The Pacific attended by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Obama also hosted the documentary Nuclear Tipping Point with foreign-policy bigwigs Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz shortly before the international nuclear summit in Washington last year.

Not everyone is comfortable watching movies with the President. Says a staffer in George W. Bush’s administration who visited the White House theater: “Everything you watch in there is uncomfortable. It’s like watching a movie with your parents times ten.”

One of the films the staffer saw was Casino Royale, the first of Daniel Craig’s outings as James Bond. It has an exquisitely awkward scene featuring testicular torture—men the world over squirmed as they watched it. When the White House screening ended, everyone sat still, unsure what to say, until President Bush broke the tension: “Not exactly the most intellectual movie ever, but not bad.”

On another occasion, First Lady Laura Bush invited two girlfriends and a group of female staffers to a Saturday “chick flick” screening of a film advertised as a lighthearted comedy. What they saw was Margot at the Wedding, a decidedly non-family-values movie about familial dysfunction. Throughout the film, which features a long scene of Jack Black dancing in his underwear far less gracefully than Tom Cruise did in Risky Business, the staffer was thinking, “I can’t believe that I’m watching this with the First Lady.”

Afterward, the women sat in silence until Mrs. Bush broke the ice : “Well, that was just a good, wholesome American family film.” It’s unlikely she told her friends to add it to their Netflix lists.

The timing of a screening can cause awkwardness. On Saturday night the week the Monica Lewinsky story broke, the Clintons had Farrah Fawcett, Robert Duvall, and others in to see The Apostle, in which Duvall plays a married Pentecostal preacher prone to adultery. The Lewinsky story was the elephant in the room. According to Peter Baker’s book The Breach, President and Mrs. Clinton arrived late that evening and overheard a guest saying, “I would—wouldn’t you?,” presumably referring to whether the President should resign.

A guest who was present says a hush fell over the room until Hillary said, “Another quiet day at the WH.” It clearly was not.

Presidential movie watching can tell us something about Presidents’ interests. But there are limits to what we can learn because the choices are somewhat limited. Presidents tend to select films from recent studio releases, of which there are a few hundred a year.

By comparison, some 275,000 new books are published annually in the United States, and the number available is in the millions. It’s more common for a President to select an old book than an old movie, though unconventional reading can cause trouble. When President George W. Bush read Camus’s bleak novel The Stranger, in which the protagonist kills an Arab, he was pilloried in the press.

And there are other political considerations. Presidents Clinton and Obama favor mainly liberal authors, while W. read more of a mix of liberals and conservatives. When it comes to films, there’s no “counter-establishment” of conservative studios. There’s only Hollywood, and the town’s politics are well known.

Movies tell us more about the personalities than about the politics of the watchers. The Fischer logs are like a Netflix queue for seven Presidents, telling who liked what, regardless of whether White House spin doctors would have approved of the revelations.

These days, presidential film selections often seem subject to image-management efforts. Obama’s screening of the military series The Pacific helps project the image of a strong commander-in-chief. Screenings of message movies may make the news, but most film choices remain between the President and his guests. Americans can dream about invitations to our nation’s most glamorous film-watching venue, but presidential historians must hope that Paul Fischer’s successors are taking equally diligent notes.

This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.