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The American President in Film and Television

Myth, Politics and Representation

Gregory Frame

As evidenced by the election of celebrity and reality television star Donald Trump, popular culture has played a vital role in the conceptualisation of political leadership. This revised edition of The American President in Film and Television explores the complex relationship between the construction of fictional presidents on screen and the political cultures from which they emerged. How have our popular cultural fantasies of presidential leadership contributed to the current political reality? Combining textual analysis with close attention to political and historical contexts, the book addresses the reasons behind the proliferation of images of the president in the past twenty-five years, from the archetype in American genre cinema (Air Force One, Independence Day and Deep Impact) to the idealised fantasy figure in network television (The West Wing, 24 and Commander in Chief). With the election of a president whose worldview appears to have been formed entirely by the aesthetics and rhetoric of popular culture, where does the presidency – either on screen or in the White House – go from here?

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Chapter 3: The Post-Cold War Presidency in Hollywood Cinema



If Ronald Reagan was the fantasy elder come to lead the sons in triumphal battle against the Evil Empire, when the credits rolled and the sons awoke from that stardusted dream, most felt farther away from the promised land of adult manhood – less triumphal, less powerful, less confident of making a living or providing for a family or contributing productively to society. And no new elder statesman, celluloid or otherwise, loomed on the horizon.1

Because we could never really know who the ‘real’ Bill Clinton was, and because there was no ‘real’ Bill Clinton to understand for the vast majority of Americans, the culture continued producing explanations for this president.2

The end of the Cold War may be the ultimate stage in the demythologizing of the contemporary American presidency.3

The above quotations outline the intellectual ground upon which this chapter will be based. I will argue that the 1990s represent a fundamental sea change in Hollywood’s representation of the presidency for three primary ← 47 | 48 → reasons: shifting conceptions of masculinity and what it meant to ‘be a man’ in a post-Civil Rights, postfeminist environment; the popularity of Bill Clinton who, despite being beset by scandal, and lacking many of the traits that had ensured electoral success for presidents that preceded him, won two presidential elections; and the relatively peaceful conclusion to the Cold War, the ideological conflict with the Soviet Union that had functioned as the organising narrative of American...

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