Although President-elect Donald Trump has promised his inauguration will be a “great show,” the number of entertainers who have said they would not participate in the affair outweighs those who actually will participate. The inaugural planning committee has stated it does not need A-list celebrities because they “already have the greatest celebrity in the world, which is the President-elect.” However, the history of inaugural entertainment demonstrates that a powerful show, with prominent entertainers visually reinforcing the president’s message, has played an essential role in connecting the president emotionally to the public, especially to those who may not have voted for him in November.
The historical relationship between the presidency and the entertainment industry is long and storied, one that John F. Kennedy celebrated at his inauguration as an important tradition that has “characterized our long history.” In fact, it began with Franklin Roosevelt, expanded with Dwight Eisenhower and became essential to John Kennedy’s success. As these men increasingly saw the political potential of collaborating with Hollywood, their inaugurations became an opportunity to use entertainment to ease party divides and promote optimism that reverberated beyond the day of the inauguration.
The tradition of glamorous Hollywood entertainment at the inauguration began in 1933 with the political activism of studio executive Jack Warner. Eager to boost his studio’s business and prestige, this FDR supporter launched his new movie, 42nd Street with a seven-car golden train that took stars like Bette Davis and Leo Carrillo across the country under the banner, “A New Deal in entertainment.” Fusing the excitement of a Hollywood premiere with Roosevelt’s inauguration became a way to ingratiate the film community with a Washington scene that looked at it frequently with condescension.
For Warner and Roosevelt, the inauguration became the first step in a collaborative relationship. Immediately following that March visit to Washington D.C.—that year was the last time the inauguration would be held in the spring—Jack Warner used all the tools at his disposal to promote Roosevelt’s initiatives, from promotional videos for New Deal programs to publicity and dollars supporting Roosevelt’s National Infantile Paralysis Foundation to a celebration of the National Recovery Act’s iconic Blue Eagle with Busby Berkeley’s choreography in the theatrical production Footlight Parade.
By 1941, the launch of Roosevelt’s third term coincided with a newly designed “inaugural gala” that took place after the official ceremonies. Rather than arrive in Washington as mere bystanders, as they did in 1933, celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. became featured participants. Politicos loved how the festivities used what one senator called “potency of the marquee names that spell box-office power” to get the people engaged in politics by adding “color” and “glamour.”
In 1953, when assuming office after two decades of Democratic White House rule, Dwight Eisenhower saw an opportunity to expand Roosevelt’s inaugural entertainment traditions. He appointed Republican actor George Murphy to prove that patriotism reigned over partisanship in Hollywood, and that the industry would support the incoming Republican administration as much as it had the Democratic ones.
As Eisenhower took his presidential oath, the influx of talent at the ceremonies expanded the connection between presidential politics and the entertainment community. And, it paid off for politically-inclined actors like Murphy and Robert Montgomery—who would soon be appointed Eisenhower’s TV advisor—while providing the president with lessons on how to adapt to the television age and a slate of celebrities ready to serve as “ambassadors of democracy” in the Cold War.
By 1960, celebrities had become significant participants in both party and movement politics on the Left and the Right. And that year, John F. Kennedy recognized how to translate star power into political capital in ways that went beyond the innovations Eisenhower had introduced when the Massachusetts senator transformed himself into a celebrity to gain political power.
Then, as president-elect, Kennedy had his brother-in-law Peter Lawford join forces with the famous crooner Frank Sinatra to plan an inaugural gala that showed the emotional and fiscal benefits of star power. As Sinatra, Lawford, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sidney Poitier, Gene Kelly, Shirley MacLaine, Henry Fonda, Fredric March, and many others traveled to Washington to celebrate Kennedy’s presidency, Bette Davis took the stage to boldly declare that showbiz has become the “sixth estate of politics.” With delight, Kennedy concurred, celebrating the excellence on display as a great American tradition. With relief, the Democratic Party collected tickets to the gala affair that helped pay off the debt incurred during the expensive, media-driven election that year.
Since then, “A-list” inaugural entertainment has been a staple of presidential politics—raising money for the party coming into power, generating goodwill from participants, and heightening the role of the president as an entertainer in chief.
When Jack Warner launched his “New Deal in entertainment” more than 80 years ago, the studio executive began a relationship between Hollywood and the presidency that has since paid dividends for both parties while also elevating the political prestige of actors themselves. And in fact, the current controversy over inaugural entertainment reveals how Hollywood still plays a prominent role by opposing the Trump presidency rather validating it.
Inaugurations have contributed to the rise of a celebrity political culture that Trump has used to his advantage to win the presidency. But this year’s inaugural controversies clearly expose the potential problems the reality-TV-star-turned president may encounter when he dismisses presidential precedents and instead relies on his perceived position as the “greatest celebrity in the world” to govern.
Historians explain how the past informs the present
Kathryn Cramer Brownell is assistant professor of history at Purdue University. She is the author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. which explores the use of Hollywood styles, structures and personalities in U.S. politics over the 20th century.