University of Southern California

Popular Imagination Shapes Administrations
When it Comes to How we See Presidents, Fiction often Trumps Fact, says USC Marshall Expert Jeff Smith
March 27, 2009 • by News at Marshall

The USC Marshall School of Business and the U.S. Department of Commerce will convene the 22nd annual Asia/Pacific

In The Presidents We Imagine, Jeff Smith, an assistant professor of clinical communication management at USC Marshall, examines the presidency’s ever-changing place in the American imagination. Analyzing different media as well as familiar and overlooked works of many kinds, he explores the evolution of presidential fictions, their largely unexamined role in real politics, their central themes, and their being influenced by new and emerging media.

"I'm interested in how artistic and fictional developments anticipated reality," says Smith. "People had to imagine it first." When the presidency was created under the Constitution, opponents believed the position would be too powerful, though advocates believed that the president would not be powerful enough. Each side created stories to support their ideas - out of their own imaginations. Only through this process could an actual presidency be formed.

"It was a war of competing stories," he says. "George Washington as the first president was deeply aware of stories operating in the minds of his people. He modeled himself on Cincinattus, the original Mr. Smith of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' where he saves the country and goes back to farming. It’s likely he was well aware of what he was doing and as president he was trying to fill out the role that had already been imagined."

In his book, Smith tries to account for differences in portrayals of the president over time. In his research, he found that not only did technological advances change storytelling, but particular issues seemed to preoccupy artists and writers more so in certain periods than others.

For example, by the 1930s, the time was right for more personalized view of presidents as characters that could be seen in a more fully rounded way. "Although Franklin Roosevelt helped change people's conception of the presidency by talking to them via radio, the new way of thinking about presidents had been taking shape for 100 years," says Smith, adding that a key figure in that development was Lincoln. By the 1920s he was a popular subject for fiction writers. Lincoln enjoyed a more fully rounded characterization, and Smith posits that Lincoln couldn’t be politically understood without this.

Similarly, during the cold war of the 1960s and 1970s, writers and filmmakers imagined the president as an ordinary person. That led to a notion that a vulnerable and fragile being was at the center of a dangerous cold war. So in the fictionalized accounts of the era, the president was pictured as being weak, dying, sick, imprisoned, psychotic or somehow inadequate to face the dangers of the tasks of the period, according to Smith.

More recently, films and novels focused on presidents as family people whose struggles were less political and more familial as they raised a teenage daughter or two.

Some of the current trends include what Smith calls a "make your own presidency," where new technology allows people to imagine a very personalized president: if you visit the White House today, you can pretend to be the president and give a speech. Presidents today still try to fit into established models, says Smith, who suggests that the benchmark narrative pattern for the current presidency is the New Deal and the Great Depression. "Obama would rather come out looking like FDR not Herbert Hoover," he says.

What does the future hold for the presidency, according to recent fiction? "At some point we're going to see something like a president getting divorced... or a crisis where a president is taken hostage, like 'Air Force One,' " Smith said.

Smith, who teaches business writing in Marshall's Center for Communication Management, has an MFA in Film and Television and a Ph.D. in English. He has also been awarded two Fulbrights for his studies.

Smith will present and sign The Presidents We Imagine: Two Centuries of White House Fictions on the Page, on the Stage, Onscreen, and Online at Book Soup in West Hollywood on March 29, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.

About USC Marshall School of Business
Based in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, at the crossroads of the Pacific Rim, the USC Marshall School is the best place to learn the art and science of business. The school's programs serve nearly 5,000 undergraduate, graduate, professional and executive-education students, who attend classes in facilities at the main Los Angeles campus, as well as satellite facilities in Irvine and San Diego. USC Marshall also operates a Global MBA program in conjunction with Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China.

c Business Outlook conference at the Davidson Conference Center on the University Park campus Monday and Tuesday, April 6-7.

The nationally recognized conference affords 250 business executives extraordinary, direct access to U.S. senior commercial officers who work in U.S. embassies in a dozen Asian countries, including China, India, Japan and Vietnam. Also speaking at the conference are 30 additional experts on the Asian economies, which many analysts view favorably despite the recession.

"No other university in the United States has been able to replicate such a longstanding conference devoted to the emerging markets in Asia," said chief organizer Richard Drobnick, director of Marshall's Center for International Business Education and Research. "It has been able to do so, partly because Marshall's faculty have been working closely with Asian and U.S. business leaders and with the U.S. Department of Commerce for the past 22 years."

In fact, the conference has garnered accolades for how it promotes international commerce in southern California and the conference organizer, Marshall's Center for International Business, will be honored May 7 with the 2009 World Trade Week Special Recognition Award, an initiative of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

During the two-day conference, U.S. business executives from 25 states will have the opportunity to make one-on-one appointments with U.S. senior commercial officers as well as with other Asia experts - with the goal of helping businesses tap into Asian markets. They will also be able to attend seminars, workshops and "country outlook" sessions on all the Asian economies, as well as Mexico.

For more than two decades, Marshall faculty have worked diligently to cultivate the confidence and interests of business leaders and government officials on both sides of the Pacific. The result is this annual conference, which in addition to creating new business opportunities for American exporters, creates opportunities for Marshall students seeking unpaid summer internships in Asia and for faculty seeking research contacts in Asia.

Sponsors for the 2009 conference include: Wells Fargo, Korean Air, USC Marshall's IBEAR MBA Program and Center for International Business, the Industrial Technology Research Institute of Taiwan, the RunZhou District Government of Zhenjiang City(China), White Drive Products, California's Center for International Trade and Development, FedEx, Sunrider, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the East West Center, and the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

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About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.