PRINT November 1993

American Myths

the Dallas/Houston Complex

Issued a dogtag (hey neat) on entering kindergarten, I always assumed the Bomb would fall during the school day. For years, each time a teacher was interrupted by the ominous cracking of the public address system, I routinely wondered—was this It? And so, when the disembodied voice of a high-school principal disrupted geometry to announce that the president had been shot, I experienced a thrill of vindicated relief. The catastrophe had happened—or, at least, a version of it—yet I was still alive!

OK, I admit it. I wonder if the many commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the day I learned the Hypotenuse-Leg Theorem will note the national postassassination euphoria elsewhere manifest in Beatlemania, the exhilarated public response to Dr. Strangelove, and the blatant gloating of Jimmy Hoffa. The appreciation of a sudden power vacuum may be the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. (I know I paid for mine with a nightmare of being trapped, precognitive, in the presidential limo as it inexorably rounded the corner of Dealy Plaza.)

The death of the Leader is a heady thing, particularly one like John F. Kennedy, who put his subjects through repeated crises. Now, of course, the old Cold War premises no longer remain—although Joe Dante’s teen comedy Matinee provided a reasonably valid high school view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, documenting attitudes rebounding between rabid earnestness (“If you die when the Bomb falls you’re lucky”) and resigned flippancy (“Going to that horror show on Saturday?” “Yeah, if they still have Saturday”), dramatizing poignant fantasies of being trapped inside a fallout shelter with the prettiest whatever in your class, as if permission to have sex required the obliteration of the civilized world.

Not without a certain self-awareness in representing the Cuban Missile Crisis as an episode in American show business, Matinee entwines the most angst-ridden week of the Cold War with a satire of the schlock apocalyptic monster movies that everyone, even then, recognized as a primitive manifestation of nuclear terror—such is the longing for a comprehensible zeitgeist. (Kennedy’s administration was mirrored and amplified by an entire cycle of paranoid political thrillers.) Indeed, barely two months after our new president’s inauguration, the New York Times Magazine had eagerly cobbled together a “Clintonian Cinema,” based on the presumed antiwar, antimacho attitudes of The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, and Unforgiven, all movies rooted in the short-lived Bush consensus.

While Matinee provided a necessary chunk of the Boomerography, that generational saga we might call “Young Bill Clinton,” the first consciously Clintonian movie was Ivan Reitman’s Dave—a canny pop-culture synthesis with a premise recalling, among other things, The Phantom President, a 1932 comedy in which a good-natured snake-oil salesman (George M. Cohan) secretly doubles for, and ultimately supplants, a corrupt and stuffy presidential candidate (George M. Cohan). More flattering to the viewer, Dave has its vapidly self-important president (Kevin Kline mimicking George Bush) replaced by an unpretentious, idealistic everyman (Kevin Kline acting “natural”), a premise that could allegorize either a Clinton victory or the comeback for a newly humanized incumbent (the more things change. . . ).

Simultaneously cynical and uplifting, Dave vouchsafed its realism and secured a place in the national docudrama with cameos by media figures ranging from Jay Leno and Nina Totenberg to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oliver Stone. The latter is particularly significant in that Dave is also a comic JFK—a conspiracy in reverse, a coup against Washington insiders. In his brief term, Dave brings in his accountant pal to balance the books, cuts a bit of wasteful spending, and restores funding to one homeless shelter. Was the movie then the Capra-esque fantasy of an ordinary citizen becoming president, or a plea for a president to escape his self-serving staff? Or was it merely a spin on business as usual? When erstwhile Reagan-handler Dave Gergen was appointed Clinton adviser in early June, his former colleagues at U.S. News & World Report reportedly celebrated the event by presenting him with a doctored Dave poster, substituting Gergen’s face for the star Kevin Kline’s.

With unexpected pathos, the period during which Dave reigned as the nation’s number-one box office attraction coincided with the nadir of the actual Leader’s popularity. Bill Clinton: Bubba Boomer, or Bomber? By June he was “The Incredible Shrinking President,” per Time—so deliriously sycophantic six months earlier when it declared the president-elect Man of the Year. (“Clinton’s campaign, conducted with dignity, with earnest attention to issues and with an impressive display of self-possession under fire, served to rehabilitate and restore the legitimacy of American politics and thus, prospectively, of government itself.”) Of course, what ultimately gave presidential-impersonator Dave his particular legitimacy was less a fawning media than the hard-won respect of his stone-faced Secret Service agent. As Dave prepares to vanish back into the obscurity of the middle-American employment agency from whence he sprang, the agent admits—yes, he would have protected the fake president as if he were the real thing, shielding him, if necessary, with his own body. That’s our president—someone to die for.

The very day the Times reported brisk sales in anti-Clinton paraphernalia, a new movie opened to universal acclaim with Clint Eastwood as aging Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan, the man who, because he failed to take the second bullet and protect JFK, has borne the guilty burden of subsequent U.S. history, but who at last redeems himself by protecting the current U.S. Leader—an even emptier suit than the president whom Dave replaces—from a brazen attack by a rogue CIA operative. In the Line of Fire: suddenly, the president had some protection; first came Dave Gergen, then Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On August 7, Clinton was saved by his old rival Bob Kerrey, who, with all Washington wondering whether the Nebraska senator would vote for the president’s budget, was reported in the Times to have “wandered out of the Senate chamber alone and spent a good part of the afternoon in a dark theater.” (I’d like to think that In the Line of Fire was the celluloid object of Kerrey’s meditation; in fact, he preserved his hipster image by going to see the Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?)

Among other things, In the Line of Fire seems a solemn corrective to The Bodyguard, the number-one movie during Clinton’s preinaugural honeymoon. Structurally the movies are nearly identical. The eponymous hero of The Bodyguard—also designated “Frank” but played by Kevin Costner—is another assassination-scarred Secret Service agent protecting a major American celebrity from a rogue version of his own bad self. However, young Frank’s trauma has a comic, post-Modern aspect. The morning that John Hinkley teed off on Ronald Reagan, this Frank took a personal day. He was attending his mother’s funeral. (Sure—and the dog ate his field report.) Moreover, young Frank gets his second chance, not by selflessly protecting a generic president in mid campaign, but by preserving an image of absolute stardom—Whitney Houston in a brass-studded bikini-bondage ensemble, at once Valkyrie and victim, maîtresse and slave, sacred monster and single mom, her fame reflecting the greater glory of the real star and prime mover, Kevin Costner. If old Frank is Macho, young Frank is Narcissus.

In the Line of Fire evokes and represses the most fashionably chaotic (and paradoxically logical) of assassination scenarios—namely that, in the confusion that followed Oswald’s first shot, a panicked Secret Service man blew the President’s head off by mistake. The Bodyguard simply elevates protection to cosmic heights. Not only does young Frank present his charge with a crucifix beeper, the movie further provides a Catholic priest to suggest that the ultimate Bodyguard is . . . God. (It’s fitting that The Bodyguard launched the best-selling song of all time, a new pledge of allegiance to the cult of celebrity.) Rather than climax at a dreary fundraising banquet, The Bodyguard winds up at the annual wish-fulfillment orgy of the Oscars.

Where were these Franks in ’92? As old Frank supported Perot, so young Frank backed away from Bush. Costner clearly knows how to protect himself but, with an admirable grasp of Hollywood dialectics, Eastwood has since cast his would-be successor in his latest project: the battle of the bodyguards pits a grizzled Texas Ranger (Eastwood) against a charmingly sociopathic con-artist (Costner). It’s set in the last golden months before the Kennedy assassination. The name of the movie: A Perfect World.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice, New York, and teaches at Cooper Union. A collection of his essays, Vulgar Modernism, was recently published by Temple University Press, and he is working on a book about American movies and politics.