“Why can’t he learn how to give a better speech?” With the State of the Union address looming next month, Joe Biden’s Hollywood critics and supporters increasingly ask that question as they see his approval ratings tank even as his policies gain favor.
Talk with Michael Douglas, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and others who have portrayed U.S. presidents and political climbers during their careers and they all describe their intense self-training in presidential cadence and elocution. Even Ronald Reagan habitually consulted coach Michael Deaver (and wife Nancy), while Lyndon Johnson demanded the presence of director Franklin Schaffner. They worked hard at it.
“A presidential speech today is like seeing a Marvel movie with no action,” observes filmmaker Barry Levinson. In his hilarious 1997 movie Wag the Dog, a desperate president hires political hustlers, played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, to drum up a fake political crisis (“The dog is supposed to be smarter than its tail,” they remind the President).
Even John Travolta, tutored by Mike Nichols, became an articulate president in Primary Colors (1995), while Kevin Kline, a doofus who, yanked into his job as a fake presidential double in Dave (1993), instantly became a gifted communicator.
As major addresses crowd his schedule, Joe Biden finally confided last week that he’s going to seek the advice of new outside advisers on communication. He has remained loyal for decades to aides Steve Ricchetti, Ron Klain and Mike Donilon (who goes back to 1981), according to Deadline’s political editor Ted Johnson, and they’ve helped him improve his public speaking. Biden himself has talked of how he’s overcome his life-long stutter and nervous cough.
While reading the teleprompter, however, “the President still seems now and then like this is the first time he’s seen the speech,” Johnson observes. “Face to face, Biden is persuasive and personable but as a public speaker those qualities don’t always register.” Indeed, supporters believe he came across stronger when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Not since the era of Harry Truman, however, has a Democratic candidate received such dire marks as a speaker. During his 1948 campaign, Truman’s backers famously organized a nationwide train tour so the President could address voters informally, person-to-person. To the astonishment of the media, support for Truman’s smooth-talking opponent, Thomas Dewey, suddenly started to melt. “Dewey Beats Truman” remains the most famous faux headline in newspaper history.
In covering the political rise of Reagan for the New York Times, I, too, witnessed a politician’s image change from sorry to savvy due to hard work and Hollywood know-how. Reagan was comfortable chatting with reporters, even admitting his lack of preparation on many issues. Pulling me aside at one event, he asked, “I keep getting questions about the so-called Blacklist — what’s all this paranoia about?” After a quick briefing, he instantly mastered a smartly evasive response on the issue.
To Reagan, coining the message was primary to dealing with the issue. To a Senate-trained Biden, however, the realities of the issue take precedence.
Eager to capture the conflicts of political life, movie stars have tended to favor Bidenesque, issue-obsessed characters in choosing their roles rather than slick Reagan-like persona. In The Ides of March (2011), George Clooney, running in a gubernatorial primary, is appalled as he learns that his aides are consistently compromising his positions. They are bent on victory at any price. A similar struggle faces Redford’s senatorial candidate in The Candidate (1972), whose handlers repeatedly soften his public message in pursuit of “a win.”
In Primary Colors (1995), Travolta’s aides struggle valiantly for damage control in response to their presidential candidate’s ritualistic affairs with bimbos (there are close parallels to the Clinton campaigns). By contrast, in Bulworth (1998), Warren Beatty delivers a deliciously nihilistic profile of a once idealistic but ruined senator who contracts for his own killing only to fall for a heartthrob political activist played by Halle Berry. Bulworth reaches his zenith as a passionate speaker only when insulting his audiences, whether Black or Jewish.
As depicted by movie stars, these conflicted political figures still deliver their messages forcefully, their eloquence resonating even in defeat. Talk to the stars about their preparation, and they are candid about the long hours: Travolta, tutored by a fiercely disciplined Nichols, becomes impeccably presidential. Redford alters his entire posture and physical presence, while Douglas (in 1995’s The American President) assumes a stentorian and transformative vocal range.
But can Biden emulate them? Or should he? His aides, as in the movies, want him to win at any price. Can Hollywood help?