White House Down: Invasions of Washington in Culture and History

The President's House. George Munger, c. 1814-1815The President's House. George Munger, c. 1814-1815

Summer blockbusters seem to proceed in pairs—the dueling volcano films, the competing asteroid films, and so on—and in 2013 the trend continued with a pair of action films in which 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. came under assault. The early entrant was March’s Olympus Has Fallen, with disgraced Secret Service agent (and Scotsman!) Gerard Butler fighting terrorists who take the president (Morgan Freeman) and White House hostage; in June came White House Down, in which the president himself (Jamie Foxx) teams up with agent Channing Tatum to fight off terrorists with the same plan. As has happened so often in recent years, however, TV got there first, as 24’s Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) thwarted a White House takeover in 2009’s 7th season of the show.

In all of those cases (spoiler alert if you’ve never seen an action film), the good guys retook the White House. But in the most iconic such assault on the presidential residence, and the film that to my mind originated 21st century images of such attacks, things went very differently. Much of the marketing and promotion for Independence Day (1996; also known as ID4), including a main promotional poster, highlighted one of that film’s action centerpieces: the destruction of the White House by invading alien attackers. (The scene, like the film overall, were echoed later that year by another dueling blockbuster movie, Tim Burton’s satirical Mars Attacks!) ID4 is certainly not without its share of jingoistic chest-thumping and flag-waving; but by making the destruction (rather than simply the temporary takeover) of the White House central to its imagery, the filmmakers emphasized American vulnerability and peril much more than its invincibility or even its resilience.

Earlier this year we marked the 200th anniversary of a similarly fraught historical moment: the 1814 burning of the White House and Capitol by British troops during the (poorly-named) War of 1812. Not surprisingly in our social media age, a tongue-in-cheek Tweet by the British embassy became the story of the day; but what the American outrage in response to that joke truly revealed is how sensitive we remain to this striking historical image of national threat and destruction. Just as ID4’s president flees the White House moments before its destruction, so too did Dolley Madison famously escape with a portrait of George Washington shortly before her and her husband’s residence burned. The story offers a sobering reminder of just how fragile the American experiment was in that Early Republic period—a fragility that, given its echoes in these various 21st century texts, moves as a sub-current in our cultural psyche to this day.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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