Published for www.washingtonian.com, May 22, 2012
President Obama’s 17-minute reelection-campaign film, helmed by documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman”) and voiced by Tom Hanks (just about everything) is a full-blown celebration of the Obama presidency, with a huge dollop of blame for good measure.
While it’s an impressive piece of filmmaking, it’s unclear if it will help Obama’s prospects: The track record of such celebrity-backed projects in presidential politics is mixed.
In 1852, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography for his Bowdoin classmate Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne was most famous for writing The Scarlet Letter, and his style was better suited to a depressing look at Puritanism than to an upbeat work of campaign salesmanship. In the preface, Hawthorne noted that “this biography is so far sanctioned by General Pierce, as it comprises a generally correct narrative of the principal events of his life, the author does not understand him as thereby necessarily indorsing [sic] all the sentiments put forth by himself in the progress of the work.” Yawn.
Another celebrity candidate-helper was Lew Wallace, author of the epic 1880 bestseller Ben-Hur, who served as a Union general in the Civil War and wrote a biography of his friend Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
The Harrison campaign bio led to rumors that Wallace was being considered for a Cabinet post–whispers that not only turned out to be untrue but that also reopened old wounds about Wallace’s poor leadership at the battle of Shiloh. According to Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle, a Milwaukee newspaper wrote: “Wallace may be a good literary man, but it wants a soldier for Secretary of War who can get his men into a fight five miles away without marching all day.”