Silver screen at the White House


Movies: Attending a screening in the mansion's private theater often means the chance to see a less formal side of the president.

March 24, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - There's an exclusive event in the film world that does not involve the red carpets, borrowed diamonds or camera-ready celebrities bound to go on parade at tonight's Oscars. But the invitation - a quiet summons to watch a movie with the president - carries a cachet all its own.

Movie nights with President Bush take two forms: official affairs arranged by the White House social office, during which Hollywood and Washington VIPs usually watch a movie with a message, and informal evenings when Bush pals around, munches on snacks and lets the dogs nap at his feet.

Either way, the evenings allow guests a glimpse of the president that most Americans never see: The one who sits mesmerized by battlefield dramas (he didn't so much as pop a Milk Dud during the new release We Were Soldiers) or chatters about a good baseball yarn (61*, about the 1961 home run race, won raves from the one-time owner of the Texas Rangers) or giggles at dog movies (he enjoyed the kennel club antics in the comedy Best in Show).

"Let's go watch a movie!" Bush announced at the dinner before the recent screening of We Were Soldiers, the Vietnam War tale about heroism and loss. With that, the guests pushed aside the remains of their chicken pot pies and filed into the plush White House movie theater.

"Afterwards, the president shook hands with us as we came out and said, `Very good movie,'" recalls Joseph L. Galloway, the war correspondent who co-wrote the book on which the film was based. "It was a great honor."

When aides close the heavy drapes on the 45-seat theater, Bush and his wife, Laura, sit front row center in seats that are bigger and more cushiony than the others, and a bowl of popcorn is always within reach. Though he's not as big a movie fan as some of his predecessors, friends say Bush is enjoying what Bill Clinton called the greatest perk of being president - private theaters in the White House and Camp David, and access to any movie he wants on Air Force One and at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Sometimes he even gets the stars of the movie to watch with him.

"Just think of the novelty of it," says actor William Baldwin, who hears fellow actors gush about presidential movie nights, though he has yet to attend one. "The next day he'll do something to influence our lives, but that night, there he is, the leader of the free world, eating a bucket of popcorn."

The attacks of Sept. 11 dimmed movie-watching for a while, though aides say the terrorist strikes did not stop Hollywood executives from lobbying for White House screenings. The office of Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove, helps select the movies to make sure they set the appropriate tone: No wonder the only VIP movie night since the attacks featured We Were Soldiers.

For filmmakers, there's the hope that the president will be moved by their work.

"You're in a room with the most powerful people on the planet in terms of government," says Randall Wallace, who wrote, produced and directed We Were Soldiers. "You ask yourself the question, `Will these people be affected by watching this film?'"

The movie nights the White House discloses are heavy on the gravitas: such as Varian's War, a Showtime film about the Holocaust, and Thirteen Days, which chronicled the Kennedy administration's actions during the Cuban missile crisis.

Bush watched the latter with an audience full of Kennedys, including Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

That's not to say the first family won't watch more frothy films in private, but the White House won't reveal details about those private movie nights.

Friends who have kicked back with the president at Camp David say the whimsical fare seems to entertain him the most.

"He loves dogs, and he loves animals," says Debbie Francis, an old friend of Bush's from Dallas. She recalls the president beaming when conversation turned to Best in Show, a film that features a lusty owner of a terrier named Winky, a lesbian dog trainer, and a neurotic Weimaraner with yuppie handlers.

"I think he just got a kick out of that," Francis says. "You see yourself when you're a dog lover, to see it taken to the extreme like that."

As for Bush's favorites, he once told The New York Times he liked Paul Newman's audacity in Cool Hand Luke and Jack Nicholson's trademark cheekiness.

The White House theater came into being in 1942, when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt - whose favorite movies included Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and anything with Shirley Temple - had it installed in a cloakroom. Nowadays, presidents can watch satellite feeds of college basketball, say, or the new release that movie fans are waiting in line to see.

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