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.