Electing a President is a strange business. Should you allow yourself to be persuaded, or must you demand more – let the facts convince you? The world’s most important presidential election in current history – Kennedy, Clinton, Obama and most recently, Trump – have to a large degree been characterized by emotions. Let us therefore attempt to look beyond the American «showbiz»: Our method of choice is to look at various documentaries on the presidential campaigns. What were the presidential candidates’ actual programs for a future USA, what political issues did they want to highlight? Is it possible to see these issues (or their implementation) through the artful persuasive rhetoric combined with charisma, shiny faces and slick handshakes?
The campaigns do not necessarily promote democracy. In the ubiquitous media society we have ben inhibiting since the days of Kennedy, intelligent debates – the prerequisite for a democracy – have sadly disappeared in the place of entertainment. The limelight is blinding, and many actually believe that a more or less charming new leader will help exactly them. This way, Trump was able to, in his last few campaign videos, suddenly pinch William Sanders’ slogan about helping the forgotten ones – which he is unlikely to do as President. Underpaid workers want to believe in better days and are tempted by the absent American Dream. But reality states something quite different: Speak to the hard-working cleaner at Trump’s latest luxury hotel in Washington DC’s converted Postal House (renovation cost 1.8 billion NOK): Did we think her pay was ok? No, she is severely underpaid.
John F. Kennedy. Do Presidents lie about the future only so they get into the Oval Office? Or were there many genuine plans which just proved impossible to carry through without Congress and Senate backing them? Do they only use enormous campaigns featuring slogans like hope & change? Show the campaigns really only glossy images which are far from reality when we wake up the day after? Let us commence our survey by following John F. Kennedy in the documentary Primary (Robert Drew, 1960) on his campaign trail. His campaign leader comments from the backseat of a car: «It’s a great dream, the dream of becoming President of The United States! » But we clearly see that Kennedy deeply dislikes the Democratic Primaries – they are too risky, he says. To which William Sanders would probably agree with. In the old monochrome film we witness Senator He writes his autograph for young boys. Flashes his famously charismatic smile. The film makers – using the period’s latest hand-held cameras with a zoom – join the campaign for five days. The plan was to make a story about a young Senator «who didn’t have a chance». As Director Drew stated some years later: Kennedy was considered to be too Catholic, too wealthy and «one of those from the East Coast». In the film, someone asks whether Kennedy considers himself an underdog in the big fight to be President. Surprisingly enough – as in the case of Trump – the media had no idea of what would happen. Beyond all the handshakes and smiles, the following hope is heard from the Presidential candidate: «How can we protect the outbreak of war, how can we protect our security? How can we maintain the peace? » This is the man who at that time attacked the state leaders’ racism against the Afro American population, and as President used the National Guard to help protect the black people. However, he faced his own trials and tribulations, as he states in the film: «These problems would test the best among us. » Later, of course, he was cynically assassinated for being the best.
Richard M. Nixon. What about Richard M. Nixon? The documentary Millhouse: A White Comedy (Emile de Antonio, 1971) portrays a candid Nixon. He was the Republican Vice President (1953–61) and President (1969–74) until he had to resign following the Watergate-scandal. And what was his programme? He despairingly emphasised the importance of «capital punishment». And that the nation required stricter laws. At every occasion, he also created an enemy image of those he deemed «the communists». Did he really carry a mill stone as indicated by his middle name? He was at least subjected to slander, which he openly despised. When he, hind the scenes, facilitated his brother’s cheap loan, he was exposed – but managed to get up again just at the gloomiest. Cunningly, he made a short film, in which he details his frugal private economy – the viewers are privy to information about his private loans, how much he makes in Congress, how much money he and his wife have at their disposal, how much he is paid for making non-political speeches (are you listening, Hillary?), his insurances, plus the fact that he is paying interest on a small loan his parents’ offered him. His wife (who worked as a stenographer) did not, unlike all the others, own a fur coat. He was not corrupt. Once they discovered a puppy on their door step, with which his daughter fell in love. They kept that present.
The documentary portrays Nixon on good and bad, as the man who grew up with five brothers. His hard-working relations. Nixon himself worked at his father’s petrol station often racking up 16-hour days. Then, the sons were to receive their education.
In the commando room, slogans are displayed on the walls; «Change versus more of the same», «It’s the economy, stupid» and «Don’t forget about health care».
The conversations in the film seem genuine too, as when we see Nixon greet the press with a sincerity unlike that of today’s politicians. But what happened after he took his position, after all the campaigns? From speaking in favour of peace and ending the Korea-war, we witness how Nixon and Kissinger tackle the Vietnam-war. A hardliner on par with today’s militarists Clinton & Trump. They are both so power crazed that they are able to join in with Nixon’s statement in the film: «The worst is atomic war. But worse than that is to surrender. » When asked about his desire to push the nuclear button, he replied: «That weapon will be used in the South Pacific. »
If we examine his campaign issues closely, we see that Nixon was a forerunner with regards to filming at arm’s length. He wanted to speak directly to the people. The film comments that he in fact had a face painted on to the camera lens, for this purpose. His mottos Pride, Self-Respect and Hope – akin to Trump’s «Make America Great Again» – regurgitate the same things about how hard labour maketh the man. Besides, getting rid of enemies, i.e. communists, who are to blame for the current misery. This is a well-known rhetoric. During the hate campaigns which accompanied Joseph McCarthy at the time, Nixon blamed communists for everything anti-American. No one should be unemployed – and if anyone had to be, it should be the communists of the previous President administration! Inflation? No, that was communist-talk! According to a friend of Nixon, his dream was to become an intellectual, study at Oxford, and then to pen historical books. Perhaps something a certain domestic Prime Minister should have wished for, rather than becoming head of NATO? As with Nixon, it is possible to end up in forceful situations and make military decisions with incredibly devastating consequences. We all remember a secret recording of Kissinger’s reply to Nixon when he wanted to use the nuclear bomb – that it would be too much, it was unnecessary.
Nixon, who in 1964 claimed that his predecessors Americanised the Vietnam-war, wanted to «Vietnamise the way to peace». This is not what happened when he, in 1969, became President. In 1971, under Nixon, the Vietnam War claimed more civilian fatalities in the former Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) than ever before in history: One million out of 16 million was killed in that year alone, with another six million forced to flee. The difference between presidential speeches and reality is also evident as Nixon concludes that when they withdrew from Vietnam, the US did not want to sustain a military base there, nor would they demand a financial compensation from Vietnam in return for their assistance (!). The only request is, he states rhetorically, that the Southern Vietnamese are able to choose their own path unhindered by other countries. In the film, we hear Nixon state that as the free world’s most powerful nation, they could have conquered others but chose not to – regardless of how proud this would have made them of their own military powers. It was more important to keep the peace and the freedom – something the US was willing to sacrifice a lot for.
A good orator is not necessarily a truthful one. The film concludes with the 1970s large anti-Vietnam war protests against Nixon.
Bill Clinton. Did we learn sufficiently from these past examples? No. Closer to our own time, Bill Clinton’s campaigns are depicted in the two films The War Room (Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker, 1993) and The Return of the War Room (H&D, 2008). These show clearly how presidential campaigns are using media in an entirely new manner. Hillary Clinton coined the metaphor «The War Room», according to the campaign leader in the film. Then as now, the mantras – as written on the walls of the War Room, were: «Change versus more of the same», «It’s the economy, stupid» and «Don’t forget about health care». In addition to the appendage «Don’t forget the debate» – Clinton was good at winning voters over.
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