Commentary

Geena Davis Is Not My President

This article appeared on Reason.com on October 18, 2005.
Geena Davis has been president for about three days now in TV time, and she’s already rearranged the Sixth Fleet and ordered U.S. troops into action twice. ABC’s new hit drama Commander in Chief (which airs tonight at 9/8c) focuses on the personal and political challenges faced by our fictional first female chief executive, Davis’ Mackenzie Allen. But what’s interesting about the show isn’t the idea of a woman president, and it certainly isn’t the hackneyed dialogue. If C in C is worth watching at all, it’s for what it tells us about modern, popular views of the presidency. Judging by the first three episodes, and the show’s popularity, the romance of presidential power transcends left and right.

C in C is the brainchild of Rod Lurie, whose previous foray into political drama was The Contender (2000). In that film, Joan Allen played a scandal-tarred Sen. Laine Hanson, fighting for confirmation as the nation’s first female vice-president. Lurie’s politics can be seen in Sen. Hanson’s confirmation speech before the Senate, where she calls for taking “every gun out of every home, period” and “making the selling of cigarettes to our youth a federal offense,” before descending into unvarnished state-worship and dubbing Congress her “church.”

Lurie has toned the leftish rhetoric down somewhat for the small screen. Geena Davis’ Mac Allen is an independent, and if her politics are thus far difficult to discern, it may be because they consist of convictions shared by both parties, such as dedication to a militarized drug war and a hyper-Wilsonianism that sees all the world’s quarrels as our own.

In episode one, just after ascending to office, President Allen meets with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to decide what to do about a woman in Nigeria who’s about to be executed under Shariah law for adultery. The answer: Send in the Marines. After a threat to its ambassador, the Nigerian government relents and we see the prisoner running to the rescue helicopter flanked by American soldiers, as President Allen delivers the line “I will always defend the Constitution.” (A commentator at National Review approves, giving Mac’s decision a “You go, girl.”)

Leave it to Lurie to make Republicans—fictional ones, at least—look good again. In episode three, as Mackenzie Allen gets ready to launch her second military action in as many days, she makes a courtesy call on her nemesis, GOP Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton, played with charmless creepiness by Donald Sutherland. She tells Templeton of her plan to capture Noriega-clone “General Sanchez,” the dictator of “San Pascuale,” who has been complicit in the deaths of six American DEA agents. Templeton complains about the frequency of post-Cold War military campaigns and pointedly asks how many of them have been worth “spilling American blood.” And he notes that Allen’s plan to spray defoliant on San Pascuale’s coca fields will ruin a lot of poor farmers who have no other option for feeding their families. Much more of this and I’ll be tempted to get a “Donald Sutherland is my President” bumper sticker for my car.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to try to glean political messages from prime-time television, but Geena Davis’s turn as a distaff Richard Nixon suggests that if there’s anything the left and the right can agree on, it’s the glory of the Imperial Presidency.

There was a time when liberals worried about excessive concentration of power in the executive branch. Indeed, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., warned in 1973’s The Imperial Presidency that the American political system was threatened by “a conception of presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity.” The Cold War had transformed the Framers’ energetic but constitutionally constrained chief executive into a sort of elected emperor with virtually unchecked authority in the international arena, and increasingly the domestic sphere as well.

But as political scientist Michael Nelson has noted, even the post-Watergate backlash among presidential scholars was a sort of “lover’s quarrel with the presidency.” Liberals disillusioned by the lies and abuses of LBJ and Nixon grumbled about presidential power while secretly pining for the restoration of Camelot. The Clinton scandals found Schlesinger greatly exaggerating the demise of the Imperial Presidency, and complaining that Ken Starr had left the executive branch “harried and enfeebled.”

Not long after Schlesinger wrote those words, President Clinton began bombing Iraq on the eve of his impeachment, and a few months later he carried out a war in Serbia in the face of Congress’s refusal to authorize it. Today, with George Bush claiming the authority to designate American citizens enemy combatants and lock them up for the duration of the war on terror without trial, there can be no doubt that the Imperial Presidency is alive and well.

And most Americans, liberal or conservative, can’t imagine it any other way. The public is no longer content to accept a mere chief magistrate, charged with faithful execution of the laws; instead, over the 20th century, the president has been transformed into a national Father-Protector, who is supposed to keep us safe from everything from economic dislocation to bad weather. As the National Post’s Colby Cosh put it two weeks after the Katrina debacle, “the 49 percent of Americans who have been complaining for five years about George W. Bush being a dictator are now vexed to the point of utter incoherence because for the last fortnight he has failed to do a sufficiently convincing impression of a dictator.”

But the office cannot bear the weight of the expectations placed upon it, nor, in most cases, can the officeholder. It’s little wonder we want most presidents’ shows cancelled by their sixth season, at the latest.

Perhaps instead of looking for a statuesque World Saver to fill the job, Americans ought to be willing to accept something less glamorous. You could hardly get less glamorous than our 27th president, William Howard Taft—who, since he did not start any major wars or offer any New Deals, is now best known for being shaped like a zeppelin. But Taft saw clearly where grandiose visions of presidential power would take the country, and fought against them with all his enormous bulk. In a series of lectures delivered at Columbia University in 1915 and 1916, Taft criticized the view of executive power offered by Teddy Roosevelt, his predecessor, a view that both Mackenzie Allen and George W. Bush embrace. Per Taft:

[The] mainspring of such a view is that the executive is charged with responsibility for the welfare of all the people in a general way, that he is to play the part of a universal Providence and set all things right, and that anything that in his judgment will help the people he ought to do, unless he is expressly forbidden not to do it. The wide field of action that this would give to the executive, one can hardly limit.

Geena Davis looks terrific, but we might do better with an awkward fat man. And perhaps the Republic will have regained its health when the presidency is no longer fodder for TV drama, but has instead been relegated to its proper place: the sit-com.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute