A fictional presidency, from 1932
0 comment Saturday, September 27, 2014 |

I always suspect that the programmers at TCM have a political agenda, and as I watched the movie 'Gabriel Over the White House' yesterday, it would seem as if that movie were chosen to make some political point, although the message of the movie itself is vague, and has been read several ways depending on one's political leanings.
For those of you who haven't seen it, 'Gabriel' is an odd movie, released in 1933, apparently produced by William Randolph Hearst during the 1932 presidential campaign. Does it seem as if that particular election keeps coming up lately in the context of today's news? It seems so to me.
Controversial since the time of its release, Gabriel Over the White House is widely acknowledged to be an example of propaganda, although contention exists as to which ideology it is espousing.
Filmed during the 1932 presidential election on the orders of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, the film was intended to be an instructional guide for Franklin D. Roosevelt during his presidency. Hammond as he exists prior to his accident is an amalgamation of caricatures of Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt's immediate predecessors. After his accident, he is Hearst's idealized image of the perfect president, the president he wanted Roosevelt to be.
These facts, coupled with the film's almost chilling accuracy at predicting Roosevelt's economic programs, lead many, particularly classical liberals and conservatives, to believe that film is a sympathetic portrayal of what might be social liberalism's worst excesses, or even socialism.
Social liberals often counter these claims by declaring that the film's politics trend more toward fascism than socialism. They point out that both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini took steps similar to Roosevelt's in stabilizing their countries' economies and both men were much more like Hammond in their social and foreign policies (e.g., massive military buildup, martial law, secret police, show trials, etc.) than Roosevelt. They further point to Hearst's well-known dalliance with Nazism, including his attendance of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, as evidence of their theories.
Recently, author and history professor Robert S. McElvaine wrote an editorial for the left-wing OpEdNews.com in which he compared current President George W. Bush to Judson Hammond.''
That last comparison figures; liberals always see a likeness to their favorite ''right-wing'' bogeymen of the day.
The movie is available on DVD, for those who are interested. Or, you can watch the movie at YouTube, in segments, and this link has a talky intro in Spanish, no less, but I include the link because as of now, the comments below the clip are interesting. I suggest you check them out, while they are there. The commenters see a resemblance to today's politics, and to the coming administration. That is what struck me when I watched the movie this time around. I first saw it perhaps 15 years ago, and it impressed me simply as a quirky, odd movie with an ambiguous message. This time, however, I saw the possibilities of a presidency which might resort to authoritarian measures in the service of liberal principles.
I won't go into great detail on the plot of the movie; I am not a movie critic, obviously. The synopsis is at the Wikipedia link.
The first time I saw the movie, some of the historical references went over my head; for instance, the ''Army of the Unemployed" in the movie represented the real-life 'Bonus Army', whose story I was not familiar with previously. I've recently been reading about the 'Bonus Army' in my old 1930s newspapers.
The events depicted in the movie, with the ''Army of the Unemployed" are based on real-life events, but in real life, there was violence used toward the 'Bonus Army', who had set up a tent city in Washington, D.C. The 'army' was made up of World War I veterans who had been promised a bonus for their military service, payable in 1945. However, with the Great Depression, many veterans were unemployed and hungry, and asked for their bonuses to be paid immediately. The Senate, however, rejected a bill which would provide for an early payment.
A month later, on July 28, Attorney General Mitchell ordered the evacuation of the veterans from all government property, Entrusted with the job, the Washington police met with resistance, shots were fired and two marchers killed. Learning of the shooting at lunch, President Hoover ordered the army to clear out the veterans. Infantry and cavalry supported by six tanks were dispatched with Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur in command. Major Dwight D. Eisenhower served as his liaison with Washington police and Major George Patton led the cavalry.''
Were any of you taught about this in school? I was not.
The movie President, supposedly being under the influence of the angel Gabriel, carries out his "populist" policies by establishing martial law.
When he sets up miltary tribunals and bombs gangsters into surrendering, we are to understand that this is the agenda he's been given to carry out, his 'divine mission'. So we are to cheer on this president and his authoritarian regime because he is doing it all in the name of ''the people'', the downtrodden, the little guys.
This kind of populism was very much in the air in the 30s, and it's reflected in a lot of the movies of the time, such as ''Meet John Doe'' and ''Sullivan's Travels.'' Perhaps it's natural that the country leaned in this direction then; there were obviously very real grievances against the wealthy and powerful, who did seem to exercise an influence far beyond what our system should allow, and there were egregious injustices which seemed to demand to be rectified.
I did find it ironic in the movie that 'President Hammond' calls the ambassadors of the world together and more or less threatens them into agreeing to disarm by a show of force. They all, of course, promise to stop their arms race, and thus everybody lives happily ever after, at least in the fictional world of this movie.
On my first viewing of this movie some years ago, I could not have imagined a presidency like this one, in which a president assumes dictatorial powers, meeting little resistance. Now it seems much more thinkable. And even if such a presidency showed a benign face, acting in the name of the ''people'' or the downtrodden and oppressed, it would still be a dictatorship nonetheless. I honestly believe that many ''liberals'' despite their constant braying about right-wing authoritarianism would be overjoyed to have a left-wing authoritarian in power; leftists and liberals generally believe, earnestly, that the end justifies the means. And that concerns me.

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