Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the History of Hollywood-Produced Propaganda

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Ronald Reagan (left) and running mate George H.W. Bush at the 1984 Republican convention.

Decades before Shonda Rhimes produced 'The Hillary Show,' candidates like a game-changing Jimmy Carter and movie star Ronald Reagan were using film to tell — and sell — their story.

The Hollywoodization of politics reaches its apotheosis with the candidate biopic. This year, Republicans watched Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight take a break from playing tough guy Mickey Donovan to provide the voice of the film for tough guy Trump, while Democrats were treated to a Shonda Rhimes production, narrated by Morgan Freeman, that tried to reveal the Hillary beneath the closed-off public servant. That this 12-minute film came from the mind behind Scandal, a show about a Bill Clinton-like president who has an affair and eventually divorces his ambitious and talented wife, was not lost on observers of the blurring of political theatrics and Hollywood magic.

Presidential campaigns have been using film to sell candidates since the early 20th century. In 1924, Republican Calvin Coolidge's silent film highlighted his small-town New England values. Four years later, a film about Herbert Hoover presented him as a thoroughly decent man whose entire career was devoted to saving people from hardship. In 1960, John F. Kennedy's team brought new sophistication to the medium with a production that employed a cutting-edge cinema verite documentary style. Running for reelection in 1972, Richard Nixon showed Nixon the Man at his convention. 

Narrated by TV star Richard Basehart (later the narrator on Knight Rider), the film offered a glimpse of the "private man" making jokes, playing music and enjoying family celebrations. But campaign films took on a new importance after party reforms in the 1970s ensured that candidates would be selected by primaries and caucuses, rather than by party bosses in smoke-filled backrooms — as a result, conventions became televised coronations used to spin a story about the nominee. Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 made the most of this with a game-changing film that played to the emotions of voters — it used TV-show theme music, animation and man-on-the-street interviews with voters asking "Jimmy who?" to tell the story of a flannel-shirted man who came from nowhere, the perfect antidote for a nation shell-shocked by Watergate. Issues were out; personality was in.


Carter (left) with running mate Walter Mondale in 1976.

Campaign films soon abandoned any strict commitment to the documentary style. In 1984, former actor Ronald Reagan's 18-minute A New Beginning — the "tenderest little ol' heart-tugger since E.T.," as TV critic Tom Shales wrote — cast the incumbent as a real-life superhero. And at the 1992 Democratic convention, TV and film pro Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda (a major Hillary supporter), used their first-rate storytelling skills to produce The Man From Hope, which brought down the house with its portrayal of Bill Clinton as no "Slick Willy," but rather a man who persevered through a difficult childhood. Of the journalists who mocked the Thomasons' involvement in the campaign, Linda said, "Perhaps they don't understand that politics and entertainment have always been, at their core, the same business." And with Donald Trump, we might end up paying the price.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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