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Hollywood Sneers at the People : Movies: 'The American President' continues a long tradition of liberal disdain.

November 26, 1995|John J. Pitney, Jr. | John J. Pitney, Jr. is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. His e-mail address is jpitney@mckenna.edu

Hollywood thinks that the voters are stupid.

It's hard to avoid that conclusion after seeing "The American President." This acclaimed new movie concerns a chief executive (Michael Douglas) who is progressive yet practical: he says that gun control is hard to pass because people do not understand the link between guns and gun-related crime. After he falls in love with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening), an evil senator (Richard Dreyfuss) turns the unthinking masses against the good president by making nasty comments about his new ladyfriend.

The president's approval ratings tumble, and the White House staff bemoans the people's willingness to believe anyone with a microphone. At a climactic moment, the domestic policy adviser (Michael J. Fox) compares Americans to nomads who need a drink of water but get a glass of sand. The president bitterly replies: "They drink the sand because they don't know the difference."

The image of a dumb, deluded electorate is hardly original with this movie. In fact, it has become one of the film industry's moldiest cliches.

In "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), a naive new senator (James Stewart) unwittingly interferes with the financial schemes of the political tricksters who put him in office. In this unexpectedly dark movie--Oliver Stone by way of Norman Rockwell--it turns out that Smith's patrons are not mere rascals but ruthless thugs who might have had a hand in assassinating his father, a crusading newspaperman. They now seek to smash the young Smith with false charges and vicious news stories--and the gullible public goes along. Anti-Smith hate mail floods the Senate, and the conspiracy succeeds until one of the plotters has a last-minute change of heart.

In "Citizens Kane" (1941), Orson Welles plays a legendary newspaper publisher who can whip his readers into a war frenzy with far-fetched stories about Spanish galleons off the Jersey coast. During a domestic argument, his wife says, "Really, Charles, people will think..." and he cuts in, "What I tell them to think!"

In "The Candidate" (1972), an idealistic Senate contender (Robert Redford) runs an issue-based campaign against a stodgy incumbent (Don Porter--who, like Richard Dreyfuss in "The American President," sports the stereotypical dark suit and short white hair). He seems certain to lose until he starts speaking in platitudes. The mushier his statements get, the better he does in the polls. Beguiled by his increasingly inane speeches and slick ads, the voters of California send him to the Senate.

Why do political films show such contempt for the people? Convenience, for one thing. If moviemakers simply assume a brain-dead public, then they need not spend valuable screen time explaining how evil or cynical characters can bend opinion to their will. Darth Vader doesn't stop "Star Wars" to describe the workings of his laser-sword, does he?

Furthermore, Hollywood is not exactly bubbling with ideological diversity. To paraphrase William Buckley, although moviemakers talk about hearing other points of view, it shocks them to learn that there are other points of view. When Michael Douglas's fictional president proudly proclaims his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, moviemakers assume that no rational person could disagree. Polls and election returns suggest that the ACLU's positions are unpopular, so the film community naturally assumes widespread craziness and stupidity.

Hollywood's warped lens produces a wildly distorted picture of politics in which elections have nothing to do with issues. The Richard Dreyfuss character complains that voters don't care about economic policy, Huh? In 1992, economics drove Ross Perot's rise and Bill Clinton's victory. In 1994, when Clinton's policies diverged from his promises, the Republicans successfully used his record against him. And the current budget fight is so contentious precisely because both sides know that economic issues will have an enormous impact on the 1996 elections.

If you want the real wisdom about American politics, you won't find it in a theater this week. Instead, go to the library and read the great scholar V.O. Key, who put it simply: "Voters are not fools."

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