In The Presidents We Imagine, Jeff Smith, an assistant professor of clinical communication management at the USC Marshall School of Business, examines the presidency’s ever-changing place in the American imagination.
Analyzing different media as well as familiar and overlooked works of many kinds, he explores the evolution of presidential fictions, their largely unexamined role in real politics and their central themes.
“I’m interested in how artistic and fictional developments anticipated reality,” Smith said. “People had to imagine it first.”
When the presidency was created under the Constitution, opponents believed the position would be too powerful, though advocates believed that the president would not be powerful enough. Each side created stories – out of their own imaginations – to support their ideas. Only through this process could an actual presidency be formed.
“It was a war of competing stories,” he says. “George Washington as the first president was deeply aware of stories operating in the minds of his people. He modeled himself on (the Roman political figure) Cincinattus, the original Mr. Smith of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where he saves the country and goes back to farming. It’s likely he 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. In his research, he found that not only did technological advances change storytelling, but particular issues seemed to preoccupy artists and writers more so in certain periods than others.
For example, by the 1930s, the time was right for more a personalized view of presidents as characters that could be seen in a more 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,” said Smith, adding that a key figure in that development was Lincoln. By the 1920s, he was a popular subject for fiction writers. Lincoln enjoyed a more fully rounded characterization, and Smith noted 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 a notion that a vulnerable and fragile being was at the center of a dangerous Cold War. So in the fictionalized accounts of the era, the president was pictured as being weak, dying, sick, imprisoned, psychotic or somehow inadequate to face the dangers of the tasks of the period, according to Smith.
More recently, films and novels focused on presidents as family people whose struggles were less political and more familial as they raised a teenage daughter or two.
Some of the current trends include what Smith calls a “make your own presidency” in which new technology allows people to imagine a very personalized president. Chief executives today still try to fit into established models, said Smith, who suggested 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,” he said.
What does the future hold for the presidency, according to recent fiction?
“At some point we’re going to see something like a president getting divorced … or a crisis where a president is taken hostage, like Air Force One, ” Smith said.
Smith, who teaches business writing in USC Marshall’s Center for Communication Management, has an MFA in film and television and a Ph.D. in English. He has also been awarded two Fulbrights for his studies.
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