Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.
The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.
Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.
Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.
The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.
1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)
1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 had seen President Lyndon B. Johnson defeat his rather alarming opponent Senator Barry Goldwater by a record margin. But this already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme sidelined forever by the escalating war,
Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.
Michael A. Cohen’s book is especially effective in its portrayal of the hugely diverse range of characters who ran for president in 1968. President Johnson: a man so crude he would sometimes take his own “Johnson” out during meetings. Bobby Kennedy is also demystified. Tragic as his assassination was, Cohen dispels the myth that his victory would have been inevitable had he lived. In fact, he may well not have even won the Democratic Party nomination. McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.
But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. Everything shifted to the Right. Nothing was ever the same again.
Book review: American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A Cohen. Published by: Oxford University Press.
We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.
But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.
Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He and President Johnson have long hated each other. Bobby is elected Senator for New York.
Ted Kennedy, already a Senator for Massachusetts since 1962, is involved in a serious plane crash. He suffers a broken back and punctured lung. Two others on board including the pilot are killed.
President Johnson passes a wealth of legislation including the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election handsomely with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate (both Humphrey and Johnson fought Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and lost).
History will never know for sure whether Kennedy had he lived, would have passed as much legislation as Johnson, been re-elected in 1964 or escalated the Vietnam War to the same disastrous extent.
The Warren Commission (which includes future Republican president, Gerald Ford amongst its members) rules that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. Over time, most Americans grow to disbelieve this verdict.
Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.
President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.
Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.
Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.
Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.
President Johnson shocks the world by pulling out of the presidential race following serious setbacks in Vietnam and a strong primary challenge from the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator Bobby Kennedy has already entered the race by this point.
A bitter Kennedy-McCarthy primary battle ensues (McCarthy fans see Kennedy as jumping on the anti-war bandwagon). Kennedy eventually emerges triumphant at the California Primary in June. With Richard Nixon emerging as the new Republican candidate, the stage seems set for another Kennedy vs. Nixon contest as in 1960. But moments after his California victory speech, Bobby is himself shot and killed on live TV. The assassin is Sirhan Sirhan, a young man who objects to the Senator’s support for Israel (a position shared by most US politicians). Sirhan remains in jail today. Kennedy leaves behind a pregnant wife, eleven children and a Democratic Party in disarray.
At a deadlocked convention, some Democrats move to draft 36-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy as the candidate but the last Kennedy son is at this point fearful of assassination himself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is eventually chosen as nominee but loses narrowly to JFK’s defeated 1960 opponent, Republican Richard Nixon in the November general election.
Jacqueline Kennedy horrifies many by marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
The Apollo 11 mission fulfils JFK’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade.
That very same weekend Senator Ted Kennedy – already seen as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – appears to crash his car at Chappaquiddick, leading to the death of a young girl Mary Jo Kopechne. The scandal and Kennedy’s unsatisfactory explanation for his behaviour (he claimed to have “repeatedly dove” to rescue her), the suspicion that he was having an affair with her or that he may have been drink driving, casts a shadow over the rest of his career. His judgement is certainly questionable, calling his lawyer immediately after the crash before calling the emergency services. He is not jailed and is re-elected to the Senate many times. But he will never become president.
Father Joseph P. Kennedy dies aged 81 (he has been unable to speak since as stroke during his son’s presidency. He has seen two of his sons assassinated, another killed in the war, a daughter lobotomised and another killed in a plane crash.
George Wallace, pro-segregation Governor of Alabama and an old rival of the Kennedys, is shot and badly wounded by student Arthur Bremner. Bremner’s disturbed diary inspires the film Taxi Driver which itself inspires John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan in a bid to “impress” actress Jodie Foster in 1981.
Ted Kennedy threatens to run for president when last minute polls suggest he could win the nomination. But he chooses not to. Senator George McGovern gets the Democratic Party nomination instead.
Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy’s husband, is picked as Senator George McGovern’s running mate after his first choice, Thomas Eagleton is forced out by revelations about his medical history.
McGovern and Shriver are defeated heavily by President Nixon who wins 49 out of 50 states.
Lyndon Johnson dies (had he ran in 1968 and ran again, his presidency would have ended just two days earlier). Unusually, as Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower all died within the last decade, there are no former US presidents alive for a period between January 1973 and August 1974.
The tenth anniversary of the JFK assassination. The US is mired in Vietnam and Watergate.
Alan J. Pakula’s film The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty focuses on assassination conspiracy theories.
President Nixon resigns over the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford succeeds him.
President Ford narrowly escapes two assassination attempts within the space of a fortnight. Both the assailants are women. “Squeaky” Fromme (a member of the Manson “family”) draws a gun on Ford when he attempts to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fires a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death over thirty years’ later.
Aristotle Onassis dies. Although only in her forties, Jackie Onassis does not remarry again.
The film Taxi Driver featuring a fictional assassination attempt on a presidential candidate is released. As mentioned, this inspires John Hinckley Junior to shoot President Reagan in 1981.
Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beats President Gerald Ford for the White House.
Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.
The William Richert film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.
Senator Ted Kennedy mounts his one and only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He mounts an effective challenge and delivers a memorable speech to the Democratic Convention but is beaten by President Carter who goes on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Kennedy is harmed by the ghosts of Chappaquiddick. In retrospect, he also seems foolish to have run in a year where he would have to unseat a sitting incumbent Democratic president (the only election in which this was the case between 1968 and 1996).
Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot dead in New York.
President Reagan is shot and wounded by John Hinckley Junior. Hinckley is ruled not guilty as he is insane. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady is badly wounded in the shooting. Secretary of State Al Haig declares on TV in the hours after the shooting that after Reagan and Vice President Bush, he is in control. This is constitutionally incorrect (he was third in line after both the Vice President and the Speaker of the House) and the “I’m in charge” gaffe reassures no one on an alarming day. Reagan makes a full recovery and eventually dies in 2004, long after the end of his presidency.
This seems to break the supposed “curse” which has seen every president elected in a year ending in zero since 1840 die in office (1840: Harrison, 1860: Lincoln, 1880: Garfield, 1900, McKinley, 1920: Harding, 1940: FDR, 1960: JFK).
Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series, Kennedy.
David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.
Mara Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger, by now a huge film star. He is Republican Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. She remains a Democrat. Their marriage ends in 2011.
Kennedy-esque Democratic contender, Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.
Future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore evoke Kennedy strongly in their presidential bids as does the eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis.
Senator Dan Quayle unwisely compares himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate:
Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
Bentsen wins the debate although Bush and Quayle win the election.
William Kennedy Smith, Senator Edward Kennedy’s nephew is acquitted after a high profile rape trial. Although he is acquitted, the family’s image is further tarnished by the scandal.
Oliver Stone’s hugely controversial film JFK is released. It centres less on the President himself but on conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
Democrat Governor Bill Clinton is elected to the presidency. His campaign makes great play of various superficial similarities between the candidate and JFK. Clinton’s “New Covenant” echoes Kennedy’s “New Frontier” (though proves less resonant). Clinton is also similarly youthful (46), has a slight physical resemblance to JFK and actually met the assassinated president when the 35th president visited his high school when Clinton was 16.
Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water is published. It is clearly inspired by the Chappaquiddick Incident.
John Connally, the former Governor of Texas wounded in the 1963 assassination dies, aged 76. In the years since, he has defected to the Republicans and ran for president himself in 1980, being beaten for the party nomination by Ronald Reagan.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the former President, dies aged 64.
Special effects technology enables JFK to appear as a character in the film, Forrest Gump.
Patrick Kennedy, a son of Ted Kennedy, is elected to the House of Representatives.
Rose Kennedy dies aged 104. She is the mother of Jack, Bobby and Ted.
The novel Idlewild by British writer Mark Lawson imagines President Kennedy surviving into old age. Idlewild in New York was renamed JFK Airport following the 1963 assassination.
Michael Kennedy, another of Bobby’s children, dies in a skiing accident. He is 39.
The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh is published.
John F. Kennedy Junior, the only son of the assassinated president, dies in a plane crash, alongside his wife and sister-in-law. He is 39.
Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is released. Kevin Costner stars as he did in JFK (although does not play JFK in either case). Bruce Greenwood is JFK and Steven Culp, RFK (The 13 days referred to in the title are October 14th-28th 1962).
Another JFK , Senator John (Forbes) Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also from Massachusetts and is the first Roman Catholic to be nominated since John F. Kennedy himself. However, he ultimately lacks the Kennedy magic and is beaten in the November election by President George W. Bush. The Bush political dynasty has thus far produced two US presidents.
The Manchurian Candidate centring on political assassinations is remade, starring Denzel Washington.
The film Bobby, directed by Emilio Estevez and based around the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is released. Estevez is the son of Martin Sheen who played JFK in 1983.
Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected US president. Some see this as a fitting tribute to the career of Senator Ted Kennedy, who has by now been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. Obama is also the first president born during Kennedy’s presidency and the first serving US senator to win the presidency since JFK himself in 1960.
Ted Kennedy dies, age 77. Although his career was marred by the Chappaquiddick Incident in 1969, he enjoyed a long and successful career as “the lion of the Senate”. He is the third longest continuously serving Senator in US history.
Four out of five of Joe and Rose’s remaining daughters die during this decade (Rose, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia).
TV series The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It is less well received than the series, The Kennedys, thirty years before.
Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 90.
July 2013 is the centenary of US President Gerald Ford. Here are a few facts about the man.
Gerald Rudolph Ford was the 38th US president. He took over when Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 and left office in January 1977, after being narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.
He was born in July 1913 (the same year as Richard Nixon) and died in December 2006, aged 93. He lived longer than any other US president (narrowly beating Ronald Reagan). Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush may beat this record if they live until 2018 (update: they both now have).
Ford was the only president never to be elected as President or Vice President. He succeeded Spiro Agnew as Veep when the latter resigned after being accused of tax evasion. He then succeeded Nixon when he became the first and only president to resign (over the Watergate Scandal). Agnew was and is only the second VP to ever resign and the only one to resign over criminal charges (which he was later found guilty of).
Ford was a college American football star in the 1930s. This prompted President Johnson to comment when Ford was Republican Minority leader in the 1960s that Ford “is a nice fellow” but had played “too much football without a helmet” and that “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” This is sometimes sanitised as “walk and chew gum at the same time”). Johnson died in 1973 and never lived to see Ford become President.
He had a reputation for clumsiness, falling over in public several times. Comic Chevy Chase made his name on TV’s Saturday Night Live impersonating the president by depicting him endlessly falling over and crashing into things. Chase made no attempt to look or sound anything like Ford.
Ford was the fourth of the six presidents to serve in the Second World War (the others were Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and the first Bush).
As a Congressman, Ford served on the Warren Commission which investigated President Kennedy’s assassination. The Commission controversially concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the killing, something that has been disputed ever since..
Betty Ford, Gerald’s wife was a notable champion of political causes and was open about her own battle with alcoholism and substance abuse. She is famous for the Betty Ford Clinics which bear her name and is arguably the only First Lady to exceed her husband in fame. She died in 2011, aged 93.
One of Ford’s first actions as president was to pardon his predecessor Richard Nixon for “any offences he may have committed at the White House”. This was an unpopular move as many suspected (wrongly) that Nixon and Ford had done a deal to secure Ford the presidency in exchange for Nixon’s freedom. The pardon seemed to link Ford to the sleaze of Watergate and probably cost Ford the 1976 election.
The Helsinki Accords of 1975 were an early step towards Détente (an early attempt to end the Cold War).
Ford’s presidency included the bicentennial year of 1976. But it was also a time of fuel crisis, inflation and post-Watergate/Vietnam gloom. Vietnam fell to communist forces in 1975.
Ford decided to run for the presidency in 1975. He previously had shown little personal ambition beyond being Speaker of the House. He faced a serious challenge from Ronald Reagan in the primaries which he eventually fought off.
Ford recognised his status in a car-related pun (made when Vice President): “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln!”
When LBJ took over following Kennedy’s death in 1963, he was not constitutionally obliged to pick a new Vice President immediately. Hubert Humphrey became Johnson’s running mate in the 1964 election and was thus sworn in after they won but between November 1963 and January 1965, there was no vice president. In 1967, the law changed, thanks to the Twenty Fifth Amendment. Any new president had to pick a VP immediately. Few expected it to come into practice so quickly. Ford had to pick a new VP in 1974 and appointed Nelson Rockefeller, a choice which Congress had to approve.
Rockefeller, a scion of the very rich oil family, had run for president himself in 1960, 1964 and 1968. He failed to win the nomination. Some attributed this to social stigma: Rockefeller (like Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s) had divorced, following the death of one of his children in the early Sixties. This divorce stigma had lifted by the Seventies. When Rockefeller announced he was retiring, Ford picked another divorced man, Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976. Reagan would become the only divorcee to win the presidency in 1980 (update: twice divorced Donald Trump has since won the presidency in 2016). Dole and John McCain, another divorcee, were both presidential nominees in 1996 and 2008, although their divorced status was not a major factor in their subsequent defeats.
Ford narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in September 1975. Both the assailants were women. “Squeaky” Fromme drew a gun on Ford when he attempted to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fired a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death, over thirty years’ later.
Ford’s 1976 running mate Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, committed a damaging gaffe during a terrifically bland performance in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debate (the first ever). “I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit”. Many objected to the suggestion that the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam were necessarily “Democrat wars”.
Ford made an even worse gaffe in his own TV debate with Democrat Jimmy Carter. Ford claimed “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” This was an absurd statement to make at the time.
Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter very narrowly in November 1976. Ford actually won more states but carried less Electoral College votes. Had he won, Ford would not have been eligible to run again in 1980 as he had already served more than half of a full four year presidential term.
Former President Ford made his acting debut playing himself alongside his old Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on an episode of Dynasty in 1983.
The career of British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home has a number of parallels to Ford’s. Both entered conservative politics after a college sports career (Home was a celebrated cricketer at Oxford in the 1920s). Both rose to power unexpectedly. Both inherited parties ravaged by scandal (the Profumo Affair in Home’s case, Watergate in Ford’s). Neither were personally implicated in scandal themselves and were considered lightweight but fundamentally decent. Both enjoyed short spells in office – Home was PM for a year, the second briefest premiership of the 20th century. Ford had the shortest tenure of any 20th century US president. Home was 60 when he became PM, Ford was 61 when he became president. Both were defeated narrowly in general elections. Home enjoyed a comeback as Foreign Secretary in 1970-74. Ford was nearly appointed as Reagan’s running mate in 1980, though this did not actually happen. Ford died aged 93 in 2006, Home was 92 when he died in 1995.
So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:
Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).
Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.
Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.
Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).
Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.
Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.
Dwight David Eisenhower
Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.
Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.
Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.
Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.
Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.
Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.
Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.
Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.
Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.
Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,
Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.
George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.
Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.
Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.
The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.
JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.
Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).