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.