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The Scary Relevance of William Randolph Hearst's "Gabriel Over the White House"

After the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush quickly declared"war on terrorism," as news writers and historians searched for comparisons to these events in the national past. On this website Thomas Spencer looked to the Alien and Sedition Acts during the"Quasi War" with France in the 1790s to locate an historical connection. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria looked further, drawing parallels with Abraham Lincoln's executive powers during the Civil War, Japanese internments during World War II, and the McCarthy"Red Scare" hearings in the 1950s. John Dean offered both a survey of military tribunals in American history and links between the Bush and Nixon presidencies.

Because this current"war" is more unconventional than any conflict recorded in our military history, there is perhaps a better era to explore--The Great Depression--and a very different"leader" to examine--William Randolph Hearst.

Although not under armed attack, Americans felt the anxiety of a nation under siege during the Great Depression, a time when the traditional values of self-reliance, individualism, and Puritan work ethic seemed inadequate. Stock market declines resound as a crisis today, but after 1929, the ability of the government to solve economic problems was called into question by rank and file citizens facing foreclosures and job losses. The dream had died and confidence in government plummeted.

In both John Steinbeck's and John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, one poignant scene reveals the frustration of a farmer with no one to blame for the economic devastation created by the Dust Bowl and the Depression. He cannot shoot the bulldozer operator, a friend and neighbor, and he cannot determine the corporate entity that actually owns his land--it is not his local banker.

The Great Depression caused farmers, mothers, scholars, and politicians to question the ability of national leaders to solve the problems of the era, often calling for radical change. Doubts that the United States government could solve national problems crossed class lines. Many Americans were willing to sacrifice constitutionally guaranteed rights and were ready to support a radically changed national government. Americans wanted to feel secure, no matter the cost to personal freedoms.

Both fascism and socialism were seen as solutions to the Depression. William Dudley Pelley organized his Silver Shirts as a fascist alternative. The Mothers' Movements, shifting from anti-war campaigns to anti-Communist crusades called for fascist reform and, in an attempt to identify the"enemy," often targeted Jews as the cause of the national woes. The fascist rhetoric of these groups reached radio audiences with the help of Father Charles E. Coughlin and gained additional national attention through the efforts of the outspoken Huey Long, who declared his readiness to confiscate funds from the wealthiest Americans to provide the middle-class with economic security. He called it the"Share Our Wealth" plan. The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), aligned with movements such as the Farmer-Labor Federation, fought equally hard for significant change. Economist Lawrence Dennis, in his The Coming American Fascism, wrote that"terms like communism and fascism, just as terms like Christianity, Americanism, or due process of the law, must mean different and often mutually exclusive things to different people." Many Americans felt that any means by any name were justified in order to bring the Great Depression to an end.

William Randolph Hearst, one of those Americans seeking radical change (and a man who changed party affiliations regularly), brought his political message to millions of moviegoers in 1933 with his Cosmopolitan Films' production of"Gabriel Over the White House." Collaborating with scriptwriter Carey Wilson, Hearst himself wrote some of the politically charged oratory of President Hammond (Walter Houston).

Opening archival footage lends a documentary character to the film, introducing the new president on inauguration day. It is quickly revealed that President Hammond, a pleasure-loving and pliable politician, has gained the presidency through the support of party leaders. These leaders remind him regularly of the many favors he owes them. He answers to political shysters and not the American people suffering through the Great Depression.

After a life-changing event--a nearly fatal auto accident caused by his own reckless driving--this fictional president experiences a spiritual and political epiphany guided by the archangel Gabriel (present in the form of a soft musical leit motif). A transformed President Hammond, who now resembles Abraham Lincoln physically and spiritually, acts rapidly to rid the nation of an unseen enemy--rum-running gangsters. Invoking his position as commander in chief, he adjourns Congress, disbands his Cabinet, institutes martial law, and after conviction by a military tribunal, orders death by firing squad in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty for the bootleggers who have threatened the stability of the country. Hammond further eliminates domestic problems by forming a CCC-like program. He gets foreign debts repaid by bullying world leaders with a display of military might. The problem of returning to a constitutional government is neatly solved as Gabriel, an angel of both vengeance and mercy, kills off President Hammond, who returns to his former self after completing the rescue of his country.

As during the Great Depression, the enemy today is invisible and therefore more sinister than an adversary with known state borders. Now as then, some Americans advocate radical change. Fear has led to important concessions. Since 9-11 Americans have willingly accepted increased security screenings as they travel, the institution of military tribunals, and a massive reorganization of government. The president even advocates a plan to encourage Americans to spy on one another--the"national neighborhood watch" or TIPS plan.

Both the United States Congress and American allies around the globe seem to have little choice but to agree to commander in chief Bush's requests. Loud disagreement would appear to be anti-American. Unlike the fade-out of a Hollywood film, the threats our nation faces cannot be so easily resolved. George W. Bush faces far-reaching decisions and may feel like President Taft who wrote,"the whole government is so identified in the minds of the people with [the president's] personality, that they make him responsible for all the sins of omission and of commission of society at large." We can hope that Gabriel continues to hover over the White House.