President Obama’s 17-minute reelection-campaign film, helmed by documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman”) and voiced by Tom Hanks (just about everything) is a full-blown celebration of the Obama presidency, with a huge dollop of blame for good measure.
While it’s an impressive piece of filmmaking, it’s unclear if it will help Obama’s prospects: The track record of such celebrity-backed projects in presidential politics is mixed.
In 1852, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography for his Bowdoin classmate Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne was most famous for writing The Scarlet Letter, and his style was better suited to a depressing look at Puritanism than to an upbeat work of campaign salesmanship. In the preface, Hawthorne noted that “this biography is so far sanctioned by General Pierce, as it comprises a generally correct narrative of the principal events of his life, the author does not understand him as thereby necessarily indorsing [sic] all the sentiments put forth by himself in the progress of the work.” Yawn.
Another celebrity candidate-helper was Lew Wallace, author of the epic 1880 bestseller Ben-Hur, who served as a Union general in the Civil War and wrote a biography of his friend Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
The Harrison campaign bio led to rumors that Wallace was being considered for a Cabinet post–whispers that not only turned out to be untrue but that also reopened old wounds about Wallace’s poor leadership at the battle of Shiloh. According to Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle, a Milwaukee newspaper wrote: “Wallace may be a good literary man, but it wants a soldier for Secretary of War who can get his men into a fight five miles away without marching all day.”
In 1920, Al Jolson–who would go on to star in the first well-known “talkie” movie–wrote and performed a song touting GOP candidate Warren G. Harding. Called “Harding You’re the Man for Us,” it contained such creaky rhymes as “We think the country’s ready / For another man like Teddy.” Still, having the “world’s greatest entertainer” onboard didn’t hurt the ultimately victorious Harding–and was a rare “get” for the perennially celebrity-deficient GOP.
In the fall of 1944, Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, met Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first of many Presidents he was to meet. Despite the singer’s reputation for making girls swoon, this time it was he who did the swooning–encountering FDR left the star “absolutely speechless,” according to comedian Rags Ragland.
After Republicans mocked FDR for meeting with the draft-exempt yet apparently healthy Sinatra, the singer adapted one of his songs to defend himself and promote the President, changing the key lines of “Everything Happens to Me” to the following: “The Republicans started squawking / They’re mad as they can be / And all I did was say hello to a / Man named Franklin D.”
In 1960, Sinatra was less extemporaneous in his support for John F. Kennedy. With some lyric changes, the Sinatra hit “High Hopes,” written for the 1959 movie A Hole in the Head, became the theme song of the Kennedy campaign. As revised for JFK, the first lines went, “Everyone is voting for Jack / ‘Cause he’s got what all the rest lack.”
Four years after Sinatra’s theme song, both Raymond Massey–known for portrayals of Abraham Lincoln on stage and screen–and John Wayne filmed ads for Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign.
While Wayne is better known today, the Massey ad became infamous. Toward the end, Massey looked at the camera and said these famous words about Goldwater: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” The statement earned its own rejoinder from the left: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
In 1992, the celebrity campaign product entered a new era with a film about Bill Clinton, The Man From Hope. Produced by Clinton’s Arkansas friends Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, it told of Clinton’s journey from a broken home to the governorship of Arkansas and the Democratic presidential nomination. The movie played a key role in establishing the Clinton campaign narrative, but that golden touch wasn’t transferable: Bloodworth-Thomason’s 2003 film, American Son, did little to boost the fledgling campaign of another Arkansan, General Wesley Clark.
This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.