Hollywood and Squares

What’s unfortunate is what Schroeder has done with this material. A glibber and breezier writer could probably have gathered these stories into a fun magazine feature. Instead Schroeder has political scientized them in a dull tome, racking up such categories as How Entertainers are Good for Presidents, How Entertainers Are Bad for Presidents, How Presidents Are Bad for Entertainers, Presidents As Entertainers, and Presidents as Entertainment, which if only for symmetry’s sake, should have been called Entertainers As Presidents.

These are not altogether useless categories, but they are awfully fungible. Take, for example, the chapter on How Entertainers are Bad for Presidents. It’s hard to accept that an antiwar outburst by a substitute member of the Ray Coniff Singers at a White House dinner could actually have hurt Richard Nixon. It’s even harder to believe that Bill Clinton’s swipe at Sister Souljah–which broke the alleged rule that presidents shouldn’t criticize entertainers!–could really be damaging, or that the anecdote wouldn’t be more at home in a chapter on, say, How Presidents Can Manipulate Minor Personages Into Useful Props.

Okay, okay, I’m quibbling–the book had to be organized somehow. A larger problem is the filberts. Separating the sweetest, saltiest stories are pages and pages devoted to recounting everyone who performed at every inaugural ball, fundraiser, and state dinner of the last half century. And while it’s a little interesting to note that Woody Allen campaigned and performed for, of all people, Lyndon Johnson, and while it’s a little fun to learn that Mitzi Gaynor played the White House (if only to be reminded that once there was actually a person named Mitzi Gaynor high-stepping across our television screens), and while it’s a little puzzling to consider how much President and Mrs. Ford must have really dug the music of Tony Orlando and Dawn, the reaction these facts registered on my personal “Huh!?” scale could have been accomplished with an economical two-page chart.

So much for the filberts. Let’s talk about Schroeder’s cashews. He’s got a bunch, though he rarely distills much flavor from them: At a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, the Captain and Tennille sang “Muskrat Love,” a song about copulating rodents. When Elvis Presley endorsed Adlai Stevenson, he said, “I don’t dig the intellectual bit, but I’m telling you, man, he knows the most.” John Wayne once contributed $1,000 to Dwight Eisenhower, but warned Jack Warner not to ask for more, explaining, “I find that I have to make about $15,000 in order to pay agents, taxes, and alimony for my first wife–this does not include my second–in order to make this $1,000. I really can’t afford this.” After sending President Carter a letter calling to deport Iranian protesters, Bob Hope got miffed when he received only a form letter in response. Richard Nixon began a memo complaining about the jokes at a White House Correspondents Dinner with the hilarious statement, “I’m not a bit thin-skinned.” Nancy Reagan, having advised Frank Sinatra to dump his wife, Barbara Marx, Barbara later forbade Nancy to attend Frank’s funeral–but Nancy went anyway. Gene Kelly allayed the fears of concerned parents Ron and Nancy Reagan by reassuring them that “not all ballet dancers are homosexual.” JFK concluded a quickie with Marlene Dietrich by asking, “Did you ever make it with my father?” to which Marlene said no, and Jack replied, “Well, that’s one place I’m in first.” Jackie?

One promising subject that Schroeder does raise, but never plumbs, is the celebrity gap: For many years, Democrats have enjoyed the support of more and bigger stars, and it’s hard to say why exactly. It’s easy to understand, for example, that Barbra Streisand is a Democrat; a lot of Jews from Brooklyn are. But Robert Redford, for example, was a WASPy kid from Santa Monica; people from that background could gravitate to either party. Is there something about being in show business that attracts stars to liberal causes? Of course, some entertainers have taken conservative positions–old timers like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and more recent stars like Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger–but have other would-be conservative performers felt inhibited because of the dominance of Hollywood liberals? Today there seem to be more conservative stars than ever. Does that mean Hollywood has become more tolerant of political diversity, or is Beverly Hills now as polarized as the rest of the country?

Perhaps it’s best not to give such loyalties too much weight. Schroeder’s book is full of presidential-celebrity interactions, but in most of them (especially those involving Ronald Reagan), both the politicians and the stars seem vain and silly. Occasionally, there’s a genuine exchange, as when Dick Nixon threw a surprisingly hip party for Duke Ellington, and 15 jazz masters played at the White House deep into the night; or when Sarah Vaughn cried after singing for LBJ, realizing how far she as a singer and a woman of her race had come in her adult life. But more often, we are offered Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand overreacting, Bill Clinton and George Bush gushing, or Marty Allen frugging with Betty Ford, under the eyes of Bob Hope and Tony Orlando. Somehow, when presidents and celebrities get together, the proximity diminishes them both.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.