The Unholy Spirit of Presidential Activism

So set your DVR for one of the oddest cinematic displays of power-worship in the history of American film.

I don't always watch television, but when I do, I prefer Turner Classic Movies. I'm clearly not the most interesting man in the world, but on Tuesday at 8:00, you can catch an old movie that has far more interesting things to say about the American presidency than anything that will be running on Fox News or MSNBC.

That movie is 1933's Gabriel Over the White House, starring Walter Huston. Released shortly after Franklin Roosevelt's election, it depicts a president literally touched by an angel and empowered to heal the country and the world.

Gabriel was the brainchild of media titan William Randolph Hearst, whose "yellow journalism" helped start the Spanish American War. By 1933, Jonathan Alter explains in The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, "Hearst believed that the country needed a dictator but he wasn't sure FDR knew how to fill the role." So with this film, Hearst "set out to show Roosevelt the way."

Gabriel's fictional president, Judson C. Hammond, begins as an unflattering amalgam of Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover, a party hack more interested in bedding his comely assistant than in dealing with his country's economic woes.

But after Hammond is gravely injured in a car crash, the archangel Gabriel visits him in the hospital and imbues the comatose chief executive with the holy spirit of presidential activism. Hammond awakens as a man transformed. "I think, gentlemen, that you forget I am still the president of these United States," he tells Congress, "and it is within the rights of the president to declare the country under martial law!"

Hammond dissolves Congress, forcibly implements a ban on foreclosures, and creates an "Army of Construction" giving a job to every unemployed American.

He authorizes a special army unit to fight gangsters, several of whom are convicted via military tribunal, then shot by a firing squad with the Statue of Liberty visible in the background. "We have in the White House a man who's enabled us to cut the red tape of legal procedures," the presiding general notes approvingly.

Toward the end of the movie, President Hammond uses a demonstration of American air power to force other world leaders to disarm, thereby ending the scourge of war. Then, with his work on Earth done, the president ascends into Heaven.

FDR was delighted and wrote to Hearst that "I think it is an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help."

A presidential drama that flirted with fascism this earnestly would be laughed off the screen today (which may be why TCM lists Gabriel as a "comedy"). But as the "Cult of Obama" shows, many of us still believe in authoritarian powers for the president.

In a November 2011 column, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank offered "A Machiavellian model for Obama" in Jack Kennedy's "kneecapping" and "mob-style threats" against steel-company executives who'd dared to raise prices.

Despite the obligatory caveat: "President Obama doesn't need to sic the FBI on his opponents," Milbank observed that "the price increase was rolled back" only after "subpoenas flew [and] FBI agents marched into steel executives' offices": "Sometimes, that's how it must be. Can Obama understand that?"

We've come a long way since 1933, but not nearly far enough. Like Barack Obama, Mitt Romney speaks of the presidency in messianic terms, and insists that the president has the power to assassinate American citizens abroad and start wars without congressional authorization.

So set your DVR for one of the oddest cinematic displays of power-worship in the history of American film. You'll have a few laughs, but you may also wonder if we've fully exorcised the spirit of Judson Hammond from presidential politics today.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I've seen that movie. It left me feeling... queasy.

  • Sevo||

    GAAAAAK!
    Sorry, I'd take a sharp stick in the eye before I'd watch this turkey.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Bullshit. This should be required reading/viewing. Every statist puke needs to watch this and get 'queasy.' People on both sides of the aisle are looking for a temporary "benevolent" dictator. The trouble is Cinncinatus is long dead. This might snap the stupid bastards out of their collective stupors.

  • Loki||

    I doubt they'd get queasy. More like a gigantic fucking chubby. This movie would be like porn for most of them.

    Nothing will snap the fuckers out their stupor except actually seeing totalitarianism firsthand, and even then only if it's the "wrong person" as dictator.

  • Sevo||

    jacob the barbarian| 9.18.12 @ 1:35PM |#
    "Bullshit. This should be required reading/viewing. Every statist puke needs to watch this and get 'queasy.'"

    I doubt statists would get queasy; they'd get tears in their eyes and swoon.

  • Ted S.||

    Oh, it's much better (or at least far more interesting) than Huston's later Mission to Moscow, another film of which FDR strongly approved.

  • Sevo||

    Davies was an unadulterated fool.

  • sarcasmic||

    All we need is a benevolent dictator, and all will be well.

  • ||

    The 30s were a weird time. To be a respectable intellectual, you practically had to be either an outright fascist or an outright communist.

  • Joe R.||

    It's nice that things have lightened up half a degree since then.

  • Acosmist||

    So a Marxist or a different kind of Marxist.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Relevant article

  • AlmightyJB||

    SF'ed. Try again

  • AlmightyJB||

  • AlmightyJB||

  • RickC||

    I'm always confused when someone decries Americans' anti-intellectualism. Anti-science, anti-reason I could go with though I'm not sure that would be true either.

    When I hear anti-intellectual, the history of fascism and communism always pops in my head and I wonder, looking at the history of intellectuals both here and abroad, why wouldn't we be? As a general rule the majority of intellectuals have always been state power fellating arses, the occasional exception to the rule not withstanding.

  • RickC||

    I should probably add that for a better, clearer explanation read Paul Johnson's "Intellectuals".

  • AlmightyJB||

    Usually those people live in bizarro world where everything is the opposite of reality. The anti-science one is a prime example. Skepticism lies at the heart of empirical science but lefty science is supposed to be beyond skepticism or questioning as if that is real science. While certainly there are people who deny empirical evidence in favor of supernatural explainations, the anti-science label tends to be applied beyond those people to people who don't accept without question what they're told.

  • strat||

    AlmightyJB is now my hero. I started becoming really nervous when I began hearing people use the word "denier" in the context of meteorological science. I'm not sure that word has any appropriate usage in an actual scientific discussion, regardless of what one's position on a topic is.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    "So set your DVR for one of the oddest cinematic displays of power-worship in the history of American film."

    Sorry, but I have better things to do with my time than watch the Presidential debate.

  • AlmightyJB||

    for the win

  • o3||

    maybe mittens can mock people in wheelchairs (FDR) to re-start his *NEW* und *IMPROVED* campaign. Goes hand-in-wheel w his ultra successful patriotic wars on women, hispanics, and now the low-income elderly.

  • Sevo||

    o3| 9.18.12 @ 12:18PM |#
    "maybe mittens can mock people in wheelchairs (FDR)"

    If anyone ever deserved mocking, it was that sleazy proto-dictator.

  • Pip||

    I seem to recall Biden telling someone in a wheelchair to stand up and take a bow.

  • Pip||

  • newshutz||

    I really shouldn't reply, but...

    What could be worse for low income seniors than intentional inflation,while fudging the numbers for their COLAs?

    Oh, you really believe that bit about wanting to push grandma over a cliff in a wheelchair.

    Why are your pusher robots better than the shover robots you oppose?

  • ||

    But... But... But... BOOOOOOOOSH

  • Finchster||

    Jonah Goldberg pointed out in Liberal Fascism that this is basically the plot of Dave.

  • Wilt Chamberlain||

    Oh man, I remember seeing this movie. I kept thinking the whole time, that this is what some people actually believe. It made me feel sick the whole time I watched it, but I'm glad I did.

  • -Umbriel-||

    I saw it late one night back in the '80s when I was in college, and found it a fascinating document of what people were thinking back then.

    There's a part where the armored cars of the "National Police Force" surround and obliterate a gangster stronghold that I found humorous at the time (the problem at the root of organized crime being corruption, not lack of firepower), but which in retrospect seems eerily prescient.

    I've long thought there's a lot of potential for a remake/reboot of this movie, in the black satirical mode of Verhoven's Starship Troopers.

  • ||

    "Gabriel was the brainchild of media titan William Randolph Hearst, whose "yellow journalism" helped start the Spanish American War."

    Healy must have been taught this in high school. Don't believe everything you read.

    http://mediamythalert.wordpres.....r-but-how/

  • toolkien||

    A leader appointed by Providence. That's what we need...

    A tea totaling, dog loving, artist perhaps?

    Or maybe a poet.

    Or maybe a librarian?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement