Ronald Reagan is known as the movie junkie president. He was, after all, an actor before getting into politics. But do you know who watched even more movies than Reagan while in office? Jimmy Carter. And Carter only served a single term.
After painstakingly going through the President’s daily journal, which outlined his tasks for each day, I’ve made a list of every movie Carter watched while in office from January 20, 1977 until January 20, 1981. And man, he really did watch a lot of films.
Part of my fascination with the movies that presidents watch is just cheap voyeurism. But the other part is an earnest belief that popular culture influences things in the real world. President Nixon was obsessed with the film Patton during the Vietnam War. President Reagan urged Congress to take computer security seriously after seeing War Games in 1983.
So what can we glean from the list I’ve compiled of President Carter’s viewing habits? Well, he certainly watched the major movies of his time that dealt with energy concerns like 1979’s nuclear-phobic The China Syndrome. He was also screening plenty of war films. The former president hosted an early private White House screening of Apocalypse Now with director Francis Ford Coppola and about 75 other people on May 10, 1979. It wasn’t released in theaters until August.
But it wasn’t all modern gloom and doom. Jimmy and the First Lady, Rosalynn, watched plenty of Westerns like Shane and A Fistful of Dollars. And they’d watch a goofy comedy now and again. (Animal House, Airplane, Caddyshack and Meatballs are all on the list). They even watched some films that might be considered horror, like the 1978 film Magic or the 1980 movie The Changeling. And they watched plenty of Humphrey Bogart movies.
It seems like Carter would watch anything and everything, with over 400 movies screened at the White House and Camp David while he was in office. Some of the screenings were private affairs with just the President and First Lady. Other times a movie was that night’s entertainment for guests at the White House. An April 30, 1979 screening of the Ingmar Bergman film Autumn Sonata notes that there were “approximately 48 members of the White House staff” on hand to watch.
In one of the most interesting screenings I came across, Carter watched Star Wars with Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, on February 4, 1978 at Camp David. That meeting was actually a secret strategy session for peace in the Middle East that would pave the way for the historic Camp David Accords in September of 1978 between Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Do I think movies had a direct impact on President Carter’s decision making? Of course not. After he watched Alien in June of 1979 I doubt it had any affect on public policy. But the media we consume do matter. And the list shows that there were screenings that reflected the political and business climate of the Cold War. For instance, President Carter watched the 1979 Soviet spy thriller Avalanche Express with a large group of Congressmen. And in 1980 he watched a movie called The Formula about a conspiracy by the oil companies to keep secret a revolutionary synthetic fuel that would put them out of business.
The list below was compiled by combing through Carter’s public daily agendas, and I believe I’ve found most of the movies he watched while in office. But if you do your own research and find more, please let me know. The movies are in the order that he watched them and include links to his full agenda for that particular day. So, for instance, if you’re curious what President Carter was doing before he watched The Cat From Outer Space on November 18, 1978, you can click through and see. (He had dinner with his family and talked with his Assistant of Communications Gerald Rafshoon.)
Sometimes President Carter watched movies immediately when they hit theaters. For instance, he watched The Empire Strikes Back five days after it had been released. Other times, there didn’t appear to be much urgency. The first movie Carter saw in the White House theater? All the President’s Men. The night after he lost his re-election campaign to Ronald Reagan he watched the 1967 film The Bandits.
President Carter had a reputation as a bit of a prude, given his deeply religious background. He once told Playboy magazine that he had lust in his heart, and this itself was a sin. But he watched plenty of films with risque material for the time, including stuff like Hardcore and Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated movie to be screened in the White House.
Although perhaps there was some guilt/atonement built in to some of these screenings. For instance, on January 25, 1980 Jimmy watched the sex comedy 10 starring Bo Derek with members of his staff. The following day Jimmy watched a movie called Jesus with the First Lady.
I’ve done my best compiling the list below but if it was unclear which version of a film that Carter may have watched, I’ve included all possible dates up to that point. For instance the agenda notes that Carter watched A Star is Born but doesn’t specify which one. It was made three times, in 1937, 1954, and 1976. We can probably assume that he watched the most recent one, but you never know!
And yes, I have freedom of information requests out for Bill Clinton, the first Bush and George W. The last of which I got an update for recently. They said I can expect the list in 46 months. No joke. But at least you can see President Reagan’s list here. [Update: Here’s Nixon’s list as well.]