- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004


Alan Schroeder

Westview Press $26, 288 pages

As surely as night follows day, every presidential election year brings out a plethora of books about past presidents, would-be presidents and one facet or another of the U.S. presidency as authors scramble to find a new or unique angle about which to write.

This year is no exception. However, one author who has succeeded in finding an angle is Alan Schroeder, whose new book, “Celebrity-in-Chief,” is somewhat misleadingly subtitled “How Show Business Took Over the White House.”

One might think that the subtitle refers to the country’s only true show-biz president, Ronald Reagan, but that is not the case. Indeed, Mr. Reagan had fewer people from the entertainment industry around him than most recent presidents. And two of Mr. Reagan’s more prominent Hollywood friends, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, had hung around other presidents of both parties.

Sinatra initially was a devotee of John F. Kennedy and was instrumental in Kennedy’s presidential campaign. But after he won, Kennedy — fearful of Sinatra’s alleged ties to the Mafia — cut off his relations with the singer.

Mr. Reagan had no such qualms. Sinatra was more a friend of Nancy Reagan than of the president, and as such he socialized with the first couple and also staged Mr. Reagan’s inaugural events. In turn, Mr. Reagan ignored the warnings of some of his advisers and presented Sinatra with the Medal of Freedom. Surprisingly, the presentation resulted in little if any criticism.

“Celebrity-in-Chief” is largely anecdotal, which means you can start reading almost anywhere. Nevertheless it is filled with interesting tidbits.

For instance, one learns that if Dick Nixon had listened to Ike Eisenhower, he — not Jack Kennedy — might well have been elected in l960.

There is general agreement that Nixon lost his first debate with Kennedy — and lost big — and that this loss tilted what was a very close race in Kennedy’s favor, almost as much as the tombstone voting in Chicago, St. Louis and a few other places did.

Mr. Schroeder discloses two facts about that incident. One, Nixon ignored Ike’s recommendation that he not debate Kennedy. And, two, Nixon ignored Ike’s offer to have Ike’s own television adviser, the movie and TV star Robert Montgomery, help prepare him for the debate.

Too bad. An uptight, uncomfortable, heavily made-up Nixon could have used some help that night.

But the book has its lighter moments, too. Like the time the former professional dancer, Betty Ford, upstaged the former Hollywood actress, Nancy Reagan, at the l976 Republican national convention by dancing with entertainer Tony Orlando as Nancy was making her grand entrance into the Reagan box.

Mr. Schroeder also points out the obvious: The great majority of Hollywood celebrities are Democrats and support Democratic candidates. Some, like Sinatra, switched; others such as Hope did not hesitate to entertain at White House events, regardless of the president’s politics.

Among the more unlikely friendships to develop between president and celebrity was that of Jimmy Carter and John Wayne, one of Hollywood’s most outspoken conservatives. Mr. Carter, surprisingly, made the initial advance, inviting Wayne to his inauguration. Wayne accepted and the two became fast friends. Wayne even supported Mr. Carter’s stand on the Panama Canal, in direct opposition to another of his friends, the not-yet President Ronald Reagan.

No book of this sort would be complete without mentioning Jack Kennedy’s intimate relationships with any number of celebrity women, most notoriously Marilyn Monroe, but also a sixtyish Marlene Dietrich, actress Jayne Mansfield and stripper Tempest Storm.

The author devotes a number of pages to Bill Clinton’s personal and professional associations with celebrities. He points out the major role that the husband-and-wife writer-producer team of Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth played, especially in the early days of Mr. Clinton’s administration.

Mr. Schroeder writes: “Perhaps more than any other president Clinton reveled in his relationships with Hollywood celebrities, taking appreciation for movie royalty to unprecedented heights, crooning with Barbra Streisand, trading wisecracks with Whoopi Goldberg, hosting Tom Hanks (among many others) at White House sleepovers.”

As he should be, the author is protective of celebrities’ rights to have opinions and express viewpoints, but here — and only here — he slips in his own viewpoint with the remark that those entertainers who opposed the Vietnam War and the Clinton impeachment “had not only popular opinion but also good sense on their side.”

Despite the occasional mistake, “Celebrity-in-Chief” is an easy and pleasant read, giving readers an inside view of a little-known and seldom-discussed segment of the lives and activities of their presidents.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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