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Popular Imagination Shapes the Presidency

When it comes to how we see presidents, fiction often trumps fact, according to a
new book by Jeff Smith of the USC Marshall School.

When it comes to how we see presidents, fiction often trumps fact, says Jeff Smith of the USC Marshall School.

In his new book The Presidents We Imagine, Smith examines the presidency’s ever changing place in the American imagination. Analyzing different media as well as familiar and overlooked works, he explores the evolution of presidential fictions and their largely unexamined role in real politics.

“I’m interested in how artistic and fictional developments anticipated reality,” Smith says. “People had to imagine it first.”

When the presidency was first created, opponents believed that the position would be too powerful, while advocates thought that the president wouldn’t be powerful enough. Each side created stories to support their idea — out of their own imaginations. Only through this process could an actual presidency be formed.

“It was a war of competing stories,” Smith explains. “George Washington as the first president was deeply aware of stories operating in the minds of his people. He modeled himself on Cincinattus, the original Mr. Smith of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who saves the country and goes back to farming. It’s likely Washington was well aware of what he was doing, and as president, he was trying to fill out the role that had already been imagined.”

In his book, Smith tries to account for differences in portrayals of the president over time.

For example, in the 1930s, the moment was right for a more personalized view of presidents as characters who could be seen in a fully rounded way. “Although Franklin Roosevelt helped change people’s conception of the presidency by talking to them via radio, the new way of thinking about presidents had been taking shape for 100 years,” notes Smith, adding that Lincoln was a key figure in that development. By the 1920s, Lincoln was a popular subject for fiction writers and enjoyed a fully rounded characterization; Smith believes that Lincoln couldn’t be politically understood without this.

Similarly, during the Cold War of the 1960s and 1970s, writers and filmmakers imagined the president as an ordinary person. That led to the notion that a vulnerable and fragile being was at the center of a dangerous war. In the fictionalized accounts of the era, the president was pictured as weak, dying, sick, imprisoned, psychotic, or somehow inadequate to face the tasks of the day.

More recently, films and novels have focused on presidents as family people whose struggles are less political than familial, as they raise a teenage daughter or two.

Presidents today still try to fit into established models, according to Smith, who suggests that the benchmark narrative pattern for the current presidency is the New Deal and the Great Depression. “Obama would rather come out looking like FDR not Herbert Hoover,” Smith says.

What does the future hold for the presidency, according to recent fiction? Smith predicts: “At some point we’re going to see something like a president getting divorced… or a crisis where a president is taken hostage, like in Air Force One.”

Jeff Smith, assistant professor of Clinical Communication Management at the USC Marshall School, is an expert on cultural imagery, ethics and crisis communication. Contact him at (213) 740-7970 or jeff.smith@marshall.usc.edu.

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