2016 is such a political annus horribilis, the choices before us is so dispiriting (although quite clear), that we may choose to escape into fiction, and dream of better choices, or at least better presidents.
Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal indulged in such wistfulness, listing “44 Fake Presidents From Worst to Best.” As the paper explained:
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has often seemed stranger than fiction. On the eve of the national conventions, it’s a fitting time to look back at fictitious presidents from movies and TV shows. We watched dozens—and ranked them, based on their accomplishments in on-screen office. The best commanders-in-chief rise to the challenges presented by plot twists. They make tough decisions, defeat evil forces and save the nation. The worst don’t uphold the duties of the fake presidency so well. They waffle and whine, lie and cheat, give in to temptation. Based on those loose criteria, here is our complete ranking of 44 fake presidents.
You may be surprised to learn that Frank Underwood didn’t come in last. That dishonor was reserved for Cliff Robertson’s “President Jack Cahill” from “Escape from L.A.,” which I confess I’ve never seen. Oh, I’ve thought about seeing it, but “Escape from New York” was so perfect (the talented Miss Adrienne Barbeau!) that I just didn’t want to risk the disappointment. Call me Snake…
F.U. was next to last.
But the fictional presidents who got the lowest ratings don’t interest me as much as the ones who got the highest.
Unfortunately, the WSJ got it wrong. They did not pick Jed Bartlet as No. 1. He came in second (which at least tells us he wasn’t completely snubbed for being a liberal icon) to…
Harrison Ford’s President James “Get off my plane!” Marshall, who kicked terrorist butt in “Air Force One.” OK, he was awesome. And as you might imagine, I loved his foreign policy (spelled out in his “Be Afraid” speech in Russia at the beginning). If you’re gonna have a fantasy president, he should definitely be one who takes no guff from the bad guys.
But Jed was all-around great. I didn’t agree with all his policies, but I liked the general thrust, and the thought that went into them. You could definitely see why all his people loved him like a father. When’s the last time we got that from a real-life president, or a candidate? FDR, I’d say. Or maybe we even have to go back to Father Abraham, who embodied it best.
I also felt like the list didn’t give enough love to a sentimental favorite, “President” Dave Kovic from “Dave.”
So here’s my own slightly amended Top Five, which I invite you to answer with your own:
- Jed Bartlet from “The West Wing.” No contest. Think about it: He’s a president who loudly complains to God, in Latin! He’s the all-around best ever, which even Republicans can see — just ask Ainsley Hayes. And I think of him as real, not just some figment of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination. After all, Sorkin created the title character in “The American President,” and he’d never make my list.
- President Merkin Muffley from “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Yeah, I’m being a little bit ironic here, but he was just so reasonable and inoffensive: “Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb… The Bomb, Dmitri… The hydrogen bomb!… Well now, what happened is… ahm… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head… you know… just a little… funny. And, ah… he went and did a silly thing… Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes… to attack your country… Ah… Well, let me finish, Dmitri…” This was sort of a forerunner of Chance the Gardener in “Being There.”
- The President from “Fail-Safe,” the serious version of “Dr. Strangelove.” Because he’s Henry Fonda! Wouldn’t you vote for Henry Fonda to be president under pretty much any circumstances? I would. So what if he ordered the U.S. Air Force to drop nukes on American cities? He was in a tight spot! You had to be there! And besides, he’s Henry Fonda, Mr. Roberts! And because, near as I can recall, Gary Cooper never played a president. Or did he?
- “President” Dave Kovic from “Dave.” Possibly the most likable fictional president in our history, even though his “a job for everybody” goal may have been a bit pie-in-the-sky. And he’s an “outsider” who gives the word a positive spin (which is hard to do with me) — Trump without the malevolence and proud cluelessness, Bernie Sanders without the class resentment.
- President James Marshall from “Air Force One.” He’s certainly way better than the president in my very favorite Wolfgang Petersen flick, “In the Line of Fire.” And in the “atavistic presidents who personally lead us into battle” category, he beats out President Thomas J. Whitmore from “Independence Day” because think about it: All Whitmore did was give a give a speech and fly an airplane — there was no hand-to-hand, and no firing of automatic weapons. The wimp.
OK, that’s my list, just based on these 44. There may be someone not on the WSJ list that I should have included, but I’m drawing a blank.
And yeah, it’s all white guys. I don’t think I saw any of those pictures in which a woman had the job (tried watching Veep, but couldn’t get into it). And while I love Morgan Freeman, I’m not a fan of “Deep Impact.” He was better as God than as the president. He was a pretty fair acting president in “Olympus Has Fallen,” though.