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President Obama's re-election campaign is releasing a video Thursday that looks back on the accomplishments of his first term. The documentary-style film, directed by Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim and narrated by actor Tom Hanks, is likely to go viral, but such video tributes are far from new in presidential politics.
In 1952, a war hero named Eisenhower was running for president; his campaign decided it needed to reintroduce the former general to the American public. The film, with its grainy World War II footage and its shouting newsreel announcer, is really where the presidential biographical film got its start — at the dawn of the golden age of American television.
Since then, every nominee — and many a candidate who didn't get that far — has done some kind of biographical documentary-style film. Most of these films have come and gone, and created little buzz. They were shown at nominating conventions or maybe on TV, but in the pre-YouTube age, they weren't that easy for a voter to see.
Mostly the intent, especially for a nonincumbent, is simple: Meet the candidate.
Jimmy Carter's film featured music that could have doubled as the theme for The Rockford Files or Charlie's Angels. Its message: Carter is an outsider you can trust after the Watergate scandal.
Anne Johnston, a professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of a book looking at how candidates use media techniques to sell their biography, says her favorite of these films is from President Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972. It highlights Nixon's success in opening up diplomatic relations with China, but it also shows something else.
"He's very — this is going to sound strange, but very human," Johnston says. "He's laughing with the Chinese translator. He's sort of teasing with her there. So it's Richard Nixon, if you're saying, playing against type, that's what I would say, is very, very comfortable with television, which of course, Nixon was not."
Among the most memorable of these films was one shown during the Democratic convention in 1992. Forty years earlier, the Eisenhower campaign unveiled The Man from Abilene. The campaign of candidate Bill Clinton drew inspiration from that.
Mark McKinnon, a veteran political media adviser who was the media adviser for both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, says Clinton's film worked so well because it told a very human story.
"I think it was important in terms of that storytelling to tell a story that a lot of Americans can relate to, to say, you know, 'Boy, this is a guy who could be president but met some of the very same challenges that I did or my family did, or friends that I know did,' " he says.
McKinnon made two of these films for Bush. The first was an introduction to a candidate who, even though he was a governor and the son of a president, was not that well-known. Four years later, for the Bush re-election, it was all about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and how the president responded to the crisis. It included scenes of the president at ground zero, and it ended with the uplifting moment of Bush throwing out the pitch at the World Series in Yankee Stadium six weeks later.
A new film is added to the library Thursday: It's 17 minutes long. A preview was released online last week.
It's coming out early — a strategic move to get the president's narrative out there. As for exposure, today's films can zip around the Web, finding an audience and being played at campaign events and in college dorms and on smartphones and all kinds of ways that the man from Abilene couldn't begin to imagine.
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