Obama to Hollywood: Help!

When you need an image boost, who better to turn to than Hollywood, the grandest disseminator of idealized imagery in the world?

Governments, dictators, politicians and political causes the world over have historically turned to the power of media and the arts to help spread their messages. Hitler had Leni Riefenstahl; Mao had his Eight Model Plays; Lenin his posters and propaganda train. Agitprop enabled the powerful to maintain their power. Today, political propaganda is still in use,though it seems to be reconfiguring itself. The United States has no state-run media and does not produce books, films and plays that reinforce the positions of the state. But there are other ways the tools of democracy, such as a free press and an entertainment industry are manipulated to serve political ends.

Maureen Dowd alluded to one such attempt when, earlier this week, she suggested Obama is deliberately engaging Hollywood—and not for fundraising.

The White House is also counting on the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal big-screen version of the killing of Bin Laden to counter Obama’s growing reputation as ineffectual. The Sony film by the Oscar-winning pair who made “The Hurt Locker” will no doubt reflect the president’s cool, gutsy decision against shaky odds. Just as Obamaland was hoping, the movie is scheduled to open on Oct. 12, 2012 — perfectly timed to give a home-stretch boost to a campaign that has grown tougher.

The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history from an administration that has tried to throw more people in jail for leaking classified information than the Bush administration.

While Hollywood is an obvious tool for recalibrating an image, most American presidents have been reluctant or perhaps unable to use it. Incendiary filmmakers like Michael Moore have had more success with political provocation by using the medium Hollywood offers in a calculated way. And Sarah Palin, after losing her 2008 vice presidential bid on the McCain ticket went straight to reality TV, knowing that a ubiquitous and popular cultural presence could overshadow her real credentials. The Tea Party, which continues to prove its strength and viability, proudly sold its propaganda with unruly town hall meetings, which in turn, won the attention of a sensation-craving media.

The current age of “free press” is largely defined by powerful corporate interests whose top dogs have their own ideas about policy. Even disgraced, there is no denying Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire is immensely successful at selling his party-line.

Maybe Obama is taking a hint.

“It was clear that the White House had outsourced the job of manning up the president’s image to Hollywood when Boal got welcomed to the upper echelons of the White House and the Pentagon and showed up recently — to the surprise of some military officers — at a C.I.A. ceremony celebrating the hero Seals,” Dowd wrote.

Maybe Obama, who had hoped to be the great conciliator has realized digging deeper into the roots of his own convictions is more effective in modern politics than middling in moderation. Drama and climax get more attention than compromise, as Hollywood can attest. Sensation sells. Maybe Obama is tired of getting upstaged.