Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 21, 2010

A Movie Obama Must See

By N.S. Palmer

I am deeply disappointed in President Obama, but I like him. I think that he’s smart, rational, informed, and that he means well.

His performance in office is another matter. It’s been almost two years of timid half-measures. Obama has tried to make slight improvements without ever rocking the boat or giving up his hope that someday, the Republicans will like him.

They won’t. Ever. Not only is he a Democrat, but he’s black. He’s educated and he uses big words. Even if he doesn’t try very hard, he wants to help working people instead of just throwing more money at Wall Street sharks and military contractors.

What President Obama needs is not more sweet reason: he’s got bags of that. What he needs is steely resolve to get the job done.

There’s no better example of such resolve than President Judson C. Hammond, the fictional hero of the 1933 classic movie, “Gabriel Over the White House.”

When the movie came out, Franklin D. Roosevelt had just become President. The Great Depression had been going on for three years, and the American people were losing hope. Roosevelt saw “Gabriel Over the White House,” so he might have been inspired by it. Some of the things Roosevelt did to give Americans hope and end the Depression were similar to what President Hammond did in the movie.

Just like Hammond and Roosevelt, President Obama inherited an economic depression caused by policies that enriched the few while impoverishing the many.

Just like Hammond and Roosevelt, President Obama faces a stone wall of resistance from corrupt politicians who care only about their own power and privilege.

Just like Hammond and Roosevelt, President Obama must defeat big-money Wall Street sharks, corporations, and the super-rich who care nothing about the United States, its people, or the common good.

Just like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack H. Obama could learn a few things from Judson C. Hammond — and from “Gabriel Over the White House.”

An Old-Style Politician

When he’s elected President, Judson C. Hammond is a typical corrupt politician. He cares only about the wealthy and politically connected. It’s 1933 and the Depression has devastated the economy, throwing tens of millions of people out of their jobs.

On the evening of his inauguration, Hammond talks to the influential party leader who helped him win the White House.


Hammond: When I think of all the promises I made the people to get elected …

Party leader: By the time they realize you aren’t going to keep them, your term will be over.

[Both men laugh]

But God has other plans for Judson C. Hammond.

Hammond doesn’t know what to make of his idealistic young assistant, Hartley Beekman.

Beekman: Sir, I’d like you to know how much I appreciate this opportunity to serve my country.

Hammond: Serve your country. Yes. Hmm.

A Near-Death Experience

After a near-fatal car crash, Hammond lies in a coma for several weeks. When he awakens, his former mistress Pendola Molloy finds him a changed man. Before, he was indifferent to the plight of the unemployed. Now, he wants to meet with them and their spokesman, John Bronson.

Molloy: Jud … Jud …

Hammond: Miss Molloy, I want all available information about John Bronson and the army of the unemployed. I want facts. Unbiased reports. The truth.

Pendola leaves the office and sees Hartley Beekman, the president’s assistant. “Beek … He’s changed. He called me ‘Miss Molloy’.”

Pendola tells Beekman that she seemed to feel a presence in the room, in addition to her and President Hammond. She felt that it was the Angel Gabriel, sent by God to lead President Hammond on a better path.

Meeting with the Cabinet

Hammond calls a meeting with the members of his cabinet, all corrupt politicians. When one of them expresses relief that he’s recovered from his coma, Hammond replies.

Hammond: Please omit all condolences. Conserve your sympathy for the people of the United States, who are in dire need of it.

The Secretary of War tells Hammond that “the army of the unemployed,” consisting of a million laid-off workers, plans to march on Washington. He wants permission to have the military attack the marchers.*

Hammond: Every citizen of the United States should be ensured the elementary necessities for keeping life within his body. This cabinet, every member of Congress, each office holder, is answerable directly to the public conscience. Gentlemen, I refuse to call out the Army against the people of the United States.

Hammond orders the secretary of war to provide the marchers with food and shelter instead of attacking them.

Food for the Hungry

Later, Hammond talks with Beekman and Miss Molloy, who is now a White House aide. Surplus food is sitting in warehouses and on docks. It’s not doing any good for anyone.

Hammond: Tons of food rotting. Millions of people starving. What’s to keep us from putting that food into the mouths of the hungry?

Meeting with the Unemployed

Hammond travels to the outskirts of Baltimore to meet the “army of the unemployed,” who have set up camp there. Against the advice of his Secret Service bodyguards, he walks into the middle of the crowd of jobless workers and talks to them.

Hammond: It is not fitting for the citizens of America to come on weary feet to seek their President. It is rather for their President to seek them out, and to bring to them freely the last full measure of protection and help. And so I came to you.

The unemployed shout, “We want work!” One refers to their service in World War I.

Unemployed worker: Seventeen years ago, the government put guns and bayonets in our hands and told us to bring back peace. We did. Now, put shovels and picks in our hands, and we will bring back prosperity. We want work!

Hammond: You have been told that there is no chance of getting work. But I say there is work, necessary work, waiting to be done. I propose therefore to create an army to be known as the Army of Construction. You’ll receive Army rates of pay. You’ll be fed, clothed, and housed, as we did our wartime armies. You’ll each be put to work in your own field, from baking bread to building dams. Then, as the wheels of industry begin to turn, stimulated by these efforts, you will be retired from the Construction Army back into industry, as rapidly as industry can absorb you.

Facing Down Congress

But in order to start the Army of Construction, Hammond must face Congress, ruled by corrupt politicians who care only about their own power and privilege. Congressional politicians and their Wall Street backers are outraged by Hammond’s attempts to help average Americans, the poor, and the unemployed. They want to impeach Hammond because “he is a traitor to his party” — that is, to the party of the corrupt and connected.

With clear and simple eloquence, Hammond explains why helping American workers is the only way to restore America’s economy and its greatness as a society. He refutes the transparent fallacy of “trickle-down economics.”

Hammond: A plant cannot be made to grow by watering the top alone, and letting the roots go dry. The people of this country are the roots of this nation, and the sturdy trunk and the branches, too.

Congressional leaders denounce Hammond for his remarks, saying that he shouldn’t try to help the American people when Congress plans to impeach him. Hammond replies frankly, speaking truth to power.

Hammond: You’ve turned your backs on the people in their hour of need. You’ve closed your hearts to their appeals. You’ve been traitors to the very concepts of democracy on which this government was founded.

Hammond reminds Congress that he is still President, and as commander in chief of the armed forces, he can declare martial law. Under that threat, Congress agrees to adjourn until the economic crisis is over. It cedes all authority to President Hammond.

Safeguarding Americans’ Homes

Hammond begins making weekly radio addresses to the American people. He reports on the progress of his efforts to restore jobs, justice, and prosperity. In one of his radio addresses, he makes a proposal that President Obama should consider.

Hammond: I propose to safeguard the homes of American citizens by a law to prevent the foreclosure of mortgages until the average American worker has had a chance to go to work.

Fighting White-Collar Crime

Hammond recognizes that Prohibition has spawned an enormous criminal industry that saps resources from the American economy and corrupts law enforcement.

After a gangster’s men attack the White House with machine guns and wound Miss Molloy, Hammond assigns Beekman to head the Federal Police, a paramilitary force that will bring white-collar criminals to justice. By this time, Beekman and Miss Molloy are engaged, so Hammond knows that Beekman will be highly motivated.

Tried before courts martial, gangsters and white-collar criminals get due process. Then they get the punishment they deserve:

Just for the record, these men did not work for Goldman Sachs.

World Peace and Disarmament

Hammond sees that the international arms race has cost hundreds of billions of dollars that would be better spent producing useful things that help people. He calls leaders of other countries to a summit on a U.S. Navy ship. By demonstrating the awesome might of the U.S. military, he convinces them that continuing the arms race will bankrupt all of their countries. He gets all the nations to agree to a treaty for universal disarmament.

Later, when leaders of all nations are at the White House and have signed the treaty, Hammond enters the room. He seems exhausted by all of his efforts. He walks to the desk and stands behind the treaty, preparing to sign it.

Hammond: With this document, this Covenant of Washington, the world takes its first real step to prevent our civilization from tottering, as did the forgotten civilizations before us.

One of the diplomats hands President Hammond a pen to sign the treaty. Hammond looks at the pen and then returns it to its holder. He picks up a quill pen, like the ones used by America’s founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence. He leans over and signs the treaty. As soon as he finishes signing it, he collapses on the desk.

The heads of state carry President Hammond to his office and put him on a couch, then they leave. Hammond’s doctor tries to give him some medicine, but Hammond refuses it. “There’s nothing you can do for me, doctor.”

Hammond: Hello, Pendy. Does the President of the United States meet with your approval?

Molloy: He’s shown that he’s one of the greatest men who ever lived.

Hammond: Pendy, please hold my hand.

The Aftermath

Beekman and Miss Molloy return from the President’s study. Beekman speaks to the heads of state who signed the treaty.

Beekman: Gentlemen, the President of the United States sends you his heartfelt gratitude for your magnificent accomplishment in achieving this Washington Covenant. His only hope was that peace on earth be preserved forever for the peoples of the world. Gentlemen, President Hammond is dead.

A grateful nation mourns the loss of President Hammond. Americans gather outside the White House and watch the flag lowered to half-staff.

Not Exactly a Libertarian Classic, But …

“Gabriel Over the White House” isn’t exactly a classic of Constitutional government or libertarian political philosophy. Vesting all power in one man can be a good thing if it’s the right man — a Marcus Aurelius or a Judson Hammond. But it’s also a dangerous precedent: instead of an Aurelius, you might get a Hitler, a Cheney, or a Bush (any Bush). One issue that the movie does not address is what happened after President Hammond died. Did the Vice President become a virtual dictator like Hammond?

But the most important point is that government should exist to serve the common good, not to frustrate it or destroy it. Sometimes, conciliation and compromise are not the right solutions. Sometimes, it takes a little steel to get the job done.

Will the Angel Gabriel ever visit the Obama White House? We can only hope that he will.

_______________________
* This is a reference to the Army’s July 28, 1932 attack on unemployed protest marchers in Washington. The attack was ordered by President Herbert Hoover and was commanded by General Douglas MacArthur.


Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included. The motion picture “Gabriel Over the White House” was released in 1933 and is no longer under copyright. It is in the public domain.

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Responses

  1. I’m really on side with you on this one. I’m a Canadian, so obviously the particulars of what President Obama does, or doesn’t do, don’t impact me in the same way they do you or most of your readers and correspondents.

    Nevertheless, with the US being more or less “first among equals” in the West, it can’t be called inconsequential, either. If the West is a sort of a team, it’s an impediment having the biggest quarterback hogging the ball, running different plays, and blaming the rest of the guys for somehow being offside. I, as I suspect you were, was hoping the election of Barrack Obama would begin to ameliorate those differences.

    President Obama’s timidity in the face of Congress… and a Democratic congress at that… is a real disappointment, even to those liberals outside the States. Though it’s not really my place to be, I was angry with him for the health care plan he finally put forward, which, far from giving the people of the United States their due as human beings, seemed retrograde. Before, if you couldn’t afford health care, you did without. Now, if you can’t afford it, you’re fined? Perhaps I haven’t understood the plan but that’s how it’s come across to me. People could at least sidestep the alligators of HMOs before… now they’re being pushed into the water, and by a Democratic president to boot. To my mind, that’s worse than what existed before. That’s like offering the people of the United States up as serfs to the insurance industry.

    Similarly, I had hopes (though I admit, not great ones) that the election of President Obama would be a scaling back of the forces and actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, a “surge”; instead, Allied countries like Canada are being urged not to end their combat operations next year, but to actually stay the course and step up their contributions… to an effort that has clearly failed, has been ill-defined from the outset, and rightly generates more and more enmity for the West and cynicism about our principles every day it persists.

    I’ve said to a friend of mine on occasion that the only way that Barrack Obama was going to go down in history in a way that kids a hundred years from now would utter his name in the company of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, Gorbechev, et al., would be to come at this as though he would be a one-termer. To set his jaw and realize the opposition would grind him down, but that he would have four solid years of real power and a bully pulpit to get the train back on the rails, and eschew any hope of a second term. Hire some advisers to explore the legal constitutional limits of executive power to find clever ways to effect policies stonewalled by gutless or bought-and-paid-for congressmen. Get out there and really tell the facts… yes, we need to raise taxes because. Yes, we need to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan because. Yes, we can afford medicare for every one of you, and here is how, and this is what it will mean to you. Jimmy Carter tried things like this, not the least of which with his energy policy, and he was ashcanned for it. That foolish clown Reagan reversed much of it. But at least Carter tried, and he’s lived long enough to see much of his efforts vindicated, if only as Cassandra might. But the point is, he made a positive effort, and if the people had been mature enough to get behind him rather than sheltering under the threadbare blanked of “Morning in America” , and had raised their voices to cow the Powers That Be in Congress and the GOP, think how much better off the US, and maybe even the world, would be now. That’s how Obama needed to come at this. But instead, he started working toward 2012 early in 2009. What generation a century from now, a decade from now, will have cause to thank him?

    The movie you brought up fires all the same reactions in me. I’m completely with the narrative till about the time the President threatens martial law… at that point, the flags go up and even I’m pushing the impeachment button on my legislative desk. The scenes of blindfolded men are more evocative of Havana, Rio de Janeiro, or Brazzaville than any Washington most people could comfortably recognize. Club Fed, si; bullets, no. As I read, I was waiting for the man’s assassination and canonization. More or less the same thing happens, less the martyrdom. But yes, as we come to the end, one is left wondering what sort of United States we’re left with. A Caesar who has put aside the other consul’s chair; a Cromwell who has executed Charles I and dismissed Parliament as rogues who have sat long enough; a Louis XVI who has shut down the Salle des États… none of these bodes well for liberty. I’m not inclined to believe we can count on angels to guide the course of government in the aftermath. To paraphrase James Madison, if there were intercessory angels, there’d be no need for government in the first place. Likewise, a benevolent dictatorship can be counted on only so long as life and inclination persist.

    But I think the movie has some good points up till Hammond’s Cromwellian dismissal of Congress. Using the powers of the Presidency, actually executing policy instead of simply proposing it (so long as it’s done within the legal boundaries of the office), is probably what Obama should have done… should do, still. Find a way, for instance, to (however temporarily) cover everyone in the US with medicare… send the bills to some federal agency… let people get used to being able to count on medical care without going broke for just a couple of years, and see how fast they wake up. And then watch what happens when Congress or the next president tries to take it away from them. Obama might be turfed for it, but very quickly, he’d have an enviable legacy. And really, for mortal creatures, what more is there?

    Sadly, I think you’re right, though. This Obama isn’t that Obama. And the fleeting moment is passing.

    • Hi, LP —

      Great thoughts, as usual.

      Two points about the requirement that Americans buy health insurance — the so-called “individual mandate.” First, if we’re going to have a system based on private insurance companies with no public option, no single-payer system, no NHS, and no “Medicare for all,” then an individual mandate is the only way to make it work. Everyone has to kick in his or her share, just as they would in a government-run system. Otherwise, the people who would participate would be mainly those whose medical expenses exceed the cost of their premiums. For anyone else, it would make sense to wait until they got sick, then sign up for insurance coverage because the companies can’t refuse them.

      Don’t interpret that, by the way, as indicating that I support the individual mandate. I support Medicare for all at least, and a UK-style a National Health Service at best. But if we’re stuck with a system that protects the profits of insurance companies, as we are, then the individual mandate is the only way it can work.

      Second, the irony of all the Republican attacks on the individual mandate is that it’s a Republican idea! Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a.k.a. “Too Creepy for Words,” imposed the individual mandate when he was governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Obama reached across the aisle for a Republican idea, hoping to get Republican support. Instead, it turned into an idea for which Republicans demonize the too-timid healthcare reform we’ve got.

      I agree with all your other points, though I see the dictatorial aspects as less central to the movie’s message than its focus on doing what’s right — at least in substance if not in Constitutional form. Hammond wants to get the job done, not spend his presidency bogged down in negotiations with people who won’t negotiate in good faith and don’t share his concern for the American people.

      I think that the Romans had the right idea. When a serious problem arose, whether economic or martial, the Romans appointed a dictator to deal with that problem. The dictator’s authority was nearly absolute, but it applied only in the area of the problem he was appointed to solve. Moreover, the dictator’s term was limited to one year.

      I liked Jimmy Carter but I also have a soft spot for President Reagan, who I think was basically good but misguided and used as a front-man by people with evil intentions (such as George H.W. Bush). I worked on Capitol Hill during the second Reagan term, and I never met anyone — whether they agreed with him or not — who did not like and respect Reagan as a man.

      Obama’s tragic flaw is that he needs to be liked by the powerful. It’s unsurprising that, trying to make his mark as a black man in elite society, he would develop that trait. But it’s unfortunate for our country.

  2. …Not to gild the lily, but I have an illustration of what I mean, what I hoped for for Barrack Obama. In 2004, the CBC ran a contest to choose The Greatest Canadian. Various celebrities put forward their champions and explained, in documentaries, why their candidate was the best. The nation chose Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister and politician who was the Father of Medicare and led the first democratic socialist government in North America (in Saskatchewan). He was never prime minister, but his charisma, his principles, and his logic made changes that are more widely-felt in the country that those of many who really made it to the office of Prime Minister.

    Tommy’s parable of Mouseland (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGLCYhYqs24)

    Tommy’s struggle to create medicare (http://archives.cbc.ca/health/health_care_system/topics/90/)

    You don’t have to be president. You don’t even have to be prime minister. But if Tommy Douglas could do it from the depths of the Opposition, just imagine what Barrack Obama could do if he really decided to.


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