From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama: 12 Presidents and Their Favorite Movies

3:44 PM 8/31/2016

by George Johnston

Many former leaders of the free world have favored Westerns ('High Noon,' anyone?).

YouTube/C-SPAN

Presidents love the movies, just like the rest of us.

The first president to screen a movie at the White House was Woodrow Wilson in 1915. A few presidents later, Franklin D. Roosevelt had a home movie theater built at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

More recently, in a sketch video that aired at the 2016 White House Correspondents' Dinner, President Barack Obama pondered what he would do after he was no longer commander-in-chief and yes, it included going to the movies with an unlikely friend, former Speaker John Boehner. 

And in July, during his 2016 DNC speech, Bill Clinton — Georgetown and Yale graduate, Rhodes scholar — recounted how he took two days off from running the country to watch all the Police Academy movies. Thankfully, Clinton didn't rank the adventures of Mahoney, Hightower et al. among his favorite films. 

Read on to find out which film gets Clinton's vote (incidentally, it's a favorite of several former commanders-in-chief).

  • Woodrow Wilson

    'The Birth of a Nation'

    Photofest

    The movie — controversial upon its 1915 release, it's now widely perceived as the most racist movie ever made — portrays the Ku Klux Klan in a laudatory light as it tries to stop a slave rebellion. It was the first film screened for Wilson while he was in office, and he later claimed he didn't know what the movie was about until he saw it. It’s been reported that Wilson said of the film: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The promotional campaign used part of that quote, attributed to Wilson, who denied ever having said it. Some historians believe that Wilson's friend Thomas Dixon, who wrote the play upon which the movie is based, came up with the quote and attributed it to the president.

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt

    'I'm No Angel'

    Photofest

    It turns out FDR was a fan of comedy, and one of his favorites was the big hit of 1933, I’m No Angel. Mae West stars as a circus performer trying to work her way up the social ladder. 

  • Harry S. Truman

    'My Darling Clementine'

    Screengrab/20th Century Fox.

    One of the former president's favorite films was My Darling Clementine starring Henry Fonda and Linda Darnell. The shootout at the OK Corral captured Truman’s imagination, and he apparently enjoyed John Ford’s 1946 retelling of the event. Another of his favorites was said to be High Noon, which has been beloved by many presidents throughout the years (see below). In all, Truman screened more than 200 films during his two terms in office.

  • Dwight Eisenhower

    'High Noon'

    One man fighting against insurmountable odds was how President Eisenhower apparently liked his films. When in office, Eisenhower took joy watching Gary Cooper’s lone sheriff defending his town from a roaming gang of bandits in High Noon. He is said to have screened the film at least three times while in office and watched more than 200 Westerns overall while in the White House. Another favorite Western was Shane, which he once watched at Camp David with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to whom he tried to explain his love of the genre: "I know they don't have any substance to them and don't require any thought to appreciate, but they always have a lot of fancy tricks. Also, I like horses."

  • John F. Kennedy

    'Dr. No'

    JFK is said to have favored the first James Bond film, Dr. No, starring Sean Connery as 007 (he also was a fan of the book series by Ian Fleming, once citing From Russia With Love as his favorite). According to the documentary Everything or Nothing, Kennedy had a private screening of Dr. No at the White House and was quoted as saying, "I wish I had had James Bond on my staff."

  • Lyndon B. Johnson

    'The Searchers'

    Photofest

    The former president is said to have favored John Ford's The Searchers, starring John Wayne as a Civil War veteran who spends years trying to find his abducted niece (Natalie Wood).

  • Richard Nixon

    'Patton'

    Photofest

    During the Vietnam War, President Nixon would watch this biopic of General George S. Patton starring George C. Scott. He reportedly watched it at least a half-dozen times, and some have suggested it may have inspired him, at least in part, to order U.S. troops to invade Cambodia during the war.

  • Jimmy Carter

    'Gone With the Wind'

    Photofest

    The peanut farmer from Georgia kept close to his Southern roots while in the White House. One of his favorite films was the epic tale of struggle during Reconstruction starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. He once said of the film during a speech honoring the American Film Institute on its 10th anniversary: "I went to a lot of movies when I was young, whenever I could. In the South, we date life either before Gone With the Wind and after Gone With the Wind, as you know. When Gone With the Wind first came out, every school in Georgia was closed, and all the students were hauled to the theaters on the school buses. And it made a great impact on our lives. I think, perhaps, we saw a different version from what was seen in the rest of the country," he quipped. Carter reportedly watched more movies while in the White House than any other president: a total of 480 films during his one term, more than two a week.

  • Ronald Reagan

    'It's a Wonderful Life'

    It must have been wonderful for President Reagan when he could take a two-hour break from being the leader of the free world and just watch a movie. The former actor enjoyed the story of George Bailey (starring his friend Jimmy Stewart) learning how precious his life is in It's a Wonderful Life. Reagan also is said to have been a fan of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, another Stewart classic.

  • Bill Clinton

    'High Noon'

    Photofest

    Another High Noon fan, Clinton screened the movie 20 times as president and said of the film in 1993: "It's a movie about courage in the face of fear and the guy doing what he thought was right in spite of the fact that it could cost him everything. Gary Cooper is terrified the whole way through. So he doesn't pretend to be some macho guy. He's just doing what he thinks is right. It's a great movie.'' Incidentally, Clinton revealed during the 2016 Democratic National Convention that he once spent two days playing hooky from his role as commander-in-chief to screen the entire Police Academy series of films.

  • George W. Bush

    'Field of Dreams'

    Universal Pictures

    It makes sense that a former owner of the Texas Rangers would cite a baseball movie as one of his favorites. In this drama starring Kevin Costner, a man struggles to keep his farm open while dealing with a magical baseball diamond in his cornfield. Bush also has reportedly said Saving Private Ryan is high on his watch list.

  • Barack Obama

    'The Godfather' and 'The Godfather: Part II'

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece The Godfather, starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, among others, lands at the top of President Obama's list. In 2008, while campaigning for president as an Illinois senator, Obama said in an interview with Katie Couric that he loves the first two movies in the trilogy: "Three, not so much." Asked if he has a favorite scene, Obama replied: "Love, love those movies. ... I think my favorite [scene] has to be — the opening scene of the first Godfather where … the caretaker comes in and Marlon Brando is sitting there and he’s saying 'You disrespected me. You know, and now you want a favor.'"

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