This feature is part of our Politics and Entertainment week, looking at the points where art and issues overlap.
As this lurching nightmare of a presidential election wheezes toward the finish line, we’re left once again to ponder how — with rare exceptions — the candidates for the highest office in our land so often seem like so much less than our best and brightest. Maybe the problem isn’t with our politicians. Maybe it’s with our expectations.
Just take a look at the commanders-in-chief that our movie and TV writers have foisted on us over the last century. It’s a motley lot of crooks, kooks, equivocators, idealists, and ass-kickers, each reflecting either who we want our leaders to be or who we think they already are. Generally speaking, our big- and small-screen presidents fall into one of seven categories, none of which really sync with the real world.
1. The Saints
Ask just about anybody — or most left-leaning anybodies — who their ideal fictional president is, and odds are they’ll name one of two characters created by Aaron Sorkin. Michael Douglas’s President Andrew Shepherd in the 1995 film The American President and Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing are presented as realistically political creatures, capable of weakness and deception, just the same as any public servant. But both also rise to the occasion over and over, eloquently articulating a vision for the country in ways that seem so evidently right that they leave their opponents sputtering. They say what we wish our leaders had the guts to say, and they find solutions that look beyond partisan biases.
No other nonexistent presidents are as idealized as Shepherd and Bartlet, though there’ve been a few over the years who are plenty admirable. As President Jackson Evans in 2000’s The Contender, Jeff Bridges stands up for his scandal-plagued vice-presidential appointee Laine Hanson, who’d be the first woman to hold the office if confirmed; and he publicly shames the political enemies who focus on irrelevancies to win the daily news cycle, at the expense of the greater good. (Any implied critique of the way the Republicans handled the Bill Clinton impeachment is entirely intended by writer-director Rod Lurie.) Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer on Fox’s 24 is an even more heroic figure, outpacing even Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer with the way he follows his principles rather than bowing to political expediency.
The key to all of these characters is that they seem so tantalizingly possible. Regardless of their actual policies, they carry themselves with a decency, honesty, and courage that makes our more compromised politicians seem all the more disappointing. Is that fair? Absolutely not. Reality is far more complicated than what even the most realistic political drama can cover, and the candidates who rise to the top of the ladder are more complicated, too. But at least the saintly fictional presidents offer a model to which future pols can aspire.
2. The Accidents
One theory for why so few real-life presidents are ever truly “great” is that the long grind of the campaign process leaves us only with would-be leaders trained to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But what if someone just kind of… ended up being president, without ever running? Writers have turned to this scenario a few times over the years to play a progressive form of “what if?” Case-in-point: the Rod Serling-penned 1972 drama The Man, with James Earl Jones as the first black president, appointed after multiple other people in the line of succession prove incapable of taking the job. See also: Geena Davis in the ABC drama Commander in Chief and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO’s Veep, both playing vice presidents who rise to the top post, becoming the first women to serve. The suggestion is that none of this bunch would’ve ended up with the gig under normal conditions, and that they have an opportunity to govern a little differently, if they choose to take it.
What’s relevant about all three of these faux-presidents is that because their circumstances are largely fantastical, their stories largely serve either as social critique or satire. The same could be said of the 1993 comedy Dave, which has Kevin Kline playing a presidential lookalike who fills in for a stroke-ridden POTUS, then begins to take an active interest in making positive changes. Even more than the likes of The American President and The West Wing, Dave is powerful — if naive — make-believe, positing that everything in Washington could be fixed if only a well-meaning outsider were to cut through the bureaucratic bushwa and make everything simpler. That we seem to think this could only ever happen without an election says something depressing about our faith in democracy.
3. The Ordinaries
Don’t be confused by the name; these aren’t the presidents most like the ones who actually sit in the Oval Office. These are the fictional POTUSes who are written to be “just like us” — the fathers and wives and grumpy oldsters whose time running the country mostly happens off-screen, while we watch their daily domestic wrangling. The most recent example of this is in the short-lived NBC sitcom 1600 Penn, where Bill Pullman plays President Standrich Gilchrist, a beleaguered chief executive who seems to spend the largest percentage of his day managing his family’s various squabbles and scandals, rather than minding the store.
Regular-folk presidents range from Bob Newhart’s Manfred Link in Buck Henry’s broad 1980 comedy First Family — where the big guy is essentially a straight man, surrounded by wackos — to the bickering ex-prezes played by Jack Lemmon and James Garner in My Fellow Americans. One of the more interesting movies in this mold is 1964’s Kisses For My President, which casts Fred MacMurray as the husband of — get this — the first woman president, played by Polly Bergen. Though not devoid of political intrigue, Kisses For My President is far more interested in the housekeeping responsibilities of the First Gentleman, and in exploring how the pressures of the office interfere with a marriage. In a very 1964 twist ending, Bergen’s President Leslie McCloud ultimately decides to resign, after she gets pregnant.
The appeal of these kinds of stories is obvious. It’s reassuring to see the presidency as just another job, and the people who do it as human beings. But the “presidents are people too” approach also feeds some of the audience’s fantasies, letting us imagine what it would be like to live in the White House, with hundreds of staffers working around the clock to cater to our whims.
4. The Action Heroes
One of the weirder trends in political fiction over the years has been the occasional tall tale about “super-presidents,” who beat back the bad guys with their bare knuckles. Once upon a time there was an actual cartoon called Super President , which ran on NBC on Saturday mornings in 1967 and ’68. You can trace a direct line from there to Harrison Ford in Air Force One and Bill Pullman in Independence Day, who meet the threat of foreign invaders head on, accomplishing more with direct violent action than they ever did with statesmanship.
Years from now, the hero president most likely to be the subject of multiple academic papers is Samuel L. Jackson’s William Alan Moore, in the action-comedy Big Game. With the help of a Finnish teenager, he eludes terrorists, arms dealers, and malicious hunters in the wilderness, gradually developing more skills and confidence as he figures out just why he’s been shot down and stranded in the middle of nowhere. President Moore is clearly modeled on Barack Obama, and characterized in such a way that Democrats could cheer him and Republicans could see in him all the “weakness” they despise in our current POTUS. When it’s time to assess Obama’s legacy, this film will be a valuable artifact of a deeply strange time.
5. The First Responders
Often, fictional presidents pop up in movies only when there’s some kind of apocalyptic crisis, and the way they react to the danger says a lot about who we want to answer the call in the world’s scariest moments. When worst comes to worst, we want Morgan Freeman’s Deep Impact character President Tom Beck to keep the nation calm, give us useful information, and make the tough decisions. We don’t necessarily want Henry Fonda in Fail Safe or Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, officiously muddling their way through choices that end up killing millions. And we definitely don’t want Jack Nicholson’s Mars Attacks! President James Dale, whose wishy-washy bungling allows space aliens to have their way with the Earth.
To be fair, we’d rather not have any real president dealing with the kind of problems that these characters do, because we’d be facing the same dangers. But given that every presidential campaign eventually brings up the “Who do you want by the phone at 3 a.m.?” question, the way these stories play out on screen is relevant. In our end-times scenarios, we’d clearly hope that the person in charge will exhaust all possibilities for survival, while always telling us the truth.
6. The Creeps
Once upon a time, Hollywood tended to treat the presidency as a sacrosanct institution, too important to disrespect even in fiction. Then Watergate happened, and suddenly filmmakers and TV writers felt a lot freer to suggest that sometimes unsavory types could end up sitting behind the most important desk in Washington. The poster child for Evil Presidents would be House Of Cards’ Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey as a Machiavellian genius willing to ruin lives and have people killed in order to acquire and consolidate power. Underwood combines our darkest visions of leadership with our love of Tony Soprano-style antiheroes, asking how much we’re willing to sacrifice to be led by “someone who knows how to get things done.”
But not all Evil Presidents are puppet-masters. In John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and Escape From L.A., Donald Pleasance and Cliff Robertson, respectively, play more run-of-the-mill weasels, who simply sacrifice others as part of their typically cold, self-serving calculations. One of the more fascinating remnants of the Clinton/impeachment era is 1997’s Absolute Power, with Gene Hackman playing a president who beats his mistress, watches the Secret Service shoot her, and then covers up her death. (Thank goodness a sneak-thief played by Clint Eastwood happens to witness the murder, setting in motion a righteous retribution that makes America great again.)
7. The Freaks
To hell with all the quasi-plausible presidents. What about the total randos? What about the POTUSes who pop up as part of some weirder phantasmagorical narrative? What about Max Frost, the rock star who leads a revolution in Wild in the Streets that ends with him in the Oval Office, sharing America’s wealth freely and ordering everyone to take LSD? Or how about President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, the tough-talking know-nothing pro wrestler in Idiocracy who… actually, y’know what? That one’s a little too terrifyingly close-to-home to contemplate right now. Get back to us in mid-November.
The greatest oddball movie president of all time though is Walter Huston’s Judson Hammond in the must-see 1933 melodrama Gabriel Over the White House. A political mediocrity who undergoes a religious conversion after a near-death experience, President Hammond reinvents himself as an authoritarian demagogue, suspending civil liberties and standing up to foreign powers in order to spearhead an era of global peace and prosperity — on his own America-first terms.
What’s remarkable about Gabriel Over the White House is that it’s not really framed as a cautionary tale. In the depths of The Great Depression, the movie was more of a “Boy, you know what would be great?” It’s only is our post-Hitler/Mussolini/Stalin/Franco. age that the film plays like a warning. Watch it after checking out all the other pseudo-presidents above. Consider it the ultimate expression of, “Be careful what you wish for.”