Call me a sucker for Aaron Sorkin screenplays, but I can’t think of a more rousing explanation in popular culture of what, at least in theory, makes American democracy such an extraordinary institution than the speech by Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglass) in The American President.
In that particular monologue, the unrealistically charismatic Shepherd denounces a trend of thinking in simplistic terms about America’s complex system of government, saying:
America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, you want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free.”
That passage, with its suggestion that American citizens cannot insulate themselves from beliefs they find abhorrent if they want to celebrate the freedom of expression so intrinsic to democratic societies, as well as the implication that individual symbols cannot be held sacred even if the ideals underlying those symbols are rightfully cherished, is the sort of nuanced political commentary actual politicians rarely dispense. The speech pulses with a progressive urgency while espousing ideas and policy proposals—unequivocal support of the ACLU, stringent gun control measures, and the constitutionality of flag burning—that left leaning Americans tend to endorse.
But rousing as it may be, Shepherd’s speech, when juxtaposed with the overall politics of the film in which it takes place, comes across as an aberration. The off-the-cuff remarks made by Shepherd may be the single most stirring moment from director
Rob Reiner’s politically minded rom com, but the true legacy of The American President is not its endorsement of a progressive agenda—it’s the way the film encapsulates an aesthetic shift within the Democratic Party that had already begun to take place when the film was released.
When you re-watch The American President, the most striking thing about the film isn’t the notion that a sitting president might deem it wise to date a working lobbyist or the impossibly witty banter that’s so particular to Sorkin screenplays. It’s the way Reiner’s camera pays loving attention to the opulent lifestyles enjoyed by America’s commander in chief and his lobbyist love interest. In doing so, Reiner couches the romance between two left leaning individuals in an overpowering aesthetic of luxury.
Shepherd’s first date with Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Benning), the environmental lobbyist he courts even as she seeks executive branch support for progressive (read: highly contentious) environmental legislation, takes place at an official state dinner commemorating a visit by France’s first couple. Throughout the scene, Reiner’s camera lingers on shots of champagne being poured by white gloved hands and sumptuous slices of cake served on official state china. The scene is without any discussions about official state policy, but there’s dancing! Shepherd and Wade waltz around a magnificent ballroom to music played by what she describes as “a wonderful orchestra”. The whole spectacle looks like something out of Beauty and the Beast and suggests a regality more in line with traditional monarchies than a government of the people. Welcome to Camelot.
The state dinner is without question The American President‘s most extravagant set piece, but it’s far from the only one that serves to emphasize the undeniably comfortable lifestyles enjoyed by Shepherd and Wade. The film unfolds within a series of impossibly posh locations. When Wade is not spending evenings at the White House, playing scrabble with her suitor while lounging on one of the mansion’s palatial couches or enjoying a smooch in the official state China room, she’s living in an upscale Georgetown condo with an open kitchen plan (very ahead of its time) and fancy furnishings.
At one point, the two lovebirds slip away to Camp David, where they sit on splendid furniture in front of a magnificent fireplace, looking like models from the mid-’90s Macy’s catalogue. These are two individuals with affirmed fidelity to a political party defined by its solidarity with those in need—the poor, the hungry, the marginalized. But the film suggests Shepherd and Wade’s championing of liberalism doesn’t at any way repudiate their existence as a couple of toffs who constantly get to experience the finer things in life. The pair pushes the liberal agenda while simultaneously living in the lap of luxury. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.
The American President was released in 1995, a year when the aesthetic of luxury presented by the film reflected the general direction the Democratic Party had begun to chart. It was a direction that stood in stark contrast to the more egalitarian agenda pursued by previous Democratic administrations helmed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Led by Bill Clinton, a president with movie star charisma, the liberalism of years’ past morphed into the neoliberalism of history’s end. Suddenly, the wisdom of markets trumped redistributive economic policies. Clintonian Democrats may have tried their hand at passing universal healthcare, but when that failed they happily settled for welfare reform and economic deregulation. The American economy boomed, though society’s upper crust took home a disproportionate percentage of the spoils. Democratic leaders didn’t overtly continue to promulgate the Regan era’s mantra of “government-bad, private sector-great”, but they didn’t exactly go to great lengths to ensure the prosperity they helped unleash lifted all boats equally.
During the Clinton administration, the aesthetics of liberalism underwent a profound and troubling shift. In the years prior to Clinton’s election—the Kennedy Administration notwithstanding—mention of the Democratic Party tended to evoke images of organized labor on the picket line, anti-materialist hippies living in communes, working class families, and politicians who wanted to create a great society where providing a decent standard of living for every single person took precedence over enabling the pursuit of personal wealth. Today, such images seem like grainy stills from a yet-to-be-made Ken Burns documentary about 20th century political life. The aesthetics of the Clinton and post-Clinton Democratic Party are the aesthetics of swanky foundations, black tie charity fundraisers that double as necessary tax write-offs, and gentrified neighborhoods where upper-middle class white people decry inequality while ordering sashimi at $15 a pop.
Indeed, the contemporary liberal elite are no different than their conservative analogues in that they trade on inside connections and relish fancy lifestyles. They support the traditional liberal agenda in theory, but you’re not going to find too many of them joining the picket line with downtrodden protestors or eating Thanksgiving dinners in the sort of smallish row houses that populate blue collar (and formerly blue voting) neighborhoods. Starting with Clinton and continuing through Obama, the Democratic Party adopted an aesthetic of excessive luxury and rejected the aesthetics of true economic populism.
What made The American President such a sadly prescient film was not how the screenplay deftly anticipated the way America, once devoid of the existential threat posed by communism, would revert to middle school tendencies and become too interested in the personal life of its chief executive. It was how the film subtly presented the shift in the aesthetics of liberal politics away from the celebration of proletarian imagery and toward an embrace of luxury. You can draw a straight line from Reiner’s foregrounding of two bleeding heart liberals living it up to our current moment, in which high-profile liberals are more likely to drop by the Aspen Ideas Festival than join a picket line. (And yes I understand that any film in which the president is the main character cannot avoid depicting everyday life at the White House and will therefore have to portray a certain amount of affluence, but take some time to watch the film and you’ll see that the cinematography does everything within its power to stress the lap of luxury its main characters live in.)
The American President is an immensely charming film that is as imminently watchable today as it was at the time of its release in 1995. But it’s also disturbingly indicative of how the aesthetic principles of establishment Democrats have changed to favor luxury over the celebration of working class labor.