Movie night at the White House: a century of screenings, decoded
Bill Clinton once told a journalist what he regarded as the biggest perk of being president. (No, not that.) “It’s the wonderful movie theatre I get here,” enthused the commander-in-chief.
The White House Family Theatre is a small wonder, converted in 1942 from an East Wing cloakroom, known as the Hat Box, by a pair of movie nuts called Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Space has always been limited to 42 – with front-row armchairs and foot rests for the First Family – but over the years it has become more like a proper picture palace and less like the breakfast room of a frosty dc hotel. In the George W. Bush years, the movie industry paid for red velvet and raked seating.
Not all the Roosevelts’ successors have been Cahiers du Cinema subscribers. Lyndon B. Johnson used the space to screen documentaries about himself, or he slept. (He stayed awake during “Thunderball” in 1966, possibly because, like James Bond, he was also dealing with a crisis involving nuclear bombs lost at sea.) JFK may not have had movie appreciation on his mind when he ran the Cliff Richard musical “Expresso Bongo” for a single unrecorded visitor on August 16th 1961 – while the First Lady was out of town.
A peanut-farming Southern Baptist was the first president to run an X-rated picture at the White House
Donald Trump betrays little evidence of a presidential movie habit, though several commentators have noticed that the imagery he deploys when evoking horrors of the us-Mexico border – trafficked women with taped mouths, prayer rugs abandoned in the dust – seems to have been borrowed from “Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado”, an action film that came out in 2018.
For precise data on White House screenings we must thank Paul Fischer, presidential projectionist from Eisenhower to Reagan, who wrote careful notes on everything he wound and loaded. Subsequent records were kept by others, and have been squeezed from the executive by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Why so cagey? Our movie choices say more about us than we might care to admit, and most presidents are smart enough to know it. Days after his victory in the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter and his media adviser Gerald Rafshoon took their first tour of the White House. “Do you know I can get any movie I want?” said Carter. “What should we watch?” Rafshoon suggested “Rocky”, which was days away from release. “What’s it about?” asked Carter. “It’s about you, Mr President,” replied Rafshoon.
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