Commentary

The Pop Culture Presidency

The presidential movies and television programs of the last decade and a half make plain the bipolar attitude toward executive power in the United States. The Clinton era saw a burst of big screen portrayals of the President, at least half of which reflected a post-Watergate sensibility, depicting the officeholder as worse than the ordinary run of humanity.

In Clear and Present Danger (1994), for example, top CIA official Jack Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) battles with Colombian drug lords and his own crooked commander-in-chief, who has caused enormous bloodshed by ordering covert actions in defiance of Congress. “How dare you, sir?” Ryan demands of President Bennett in a memorable scene.

In the 1997 thriller Absolute Power, the president’s taste for rough sex leads to an elaborate cover-up after a resisting paramour gets shot by the Secret Service. And in Murder at 1600 (1997), Mars Attacks (1996), Wag the Dog (1997), Primary Colors (1998) and Dick (1999), the Hollywood president was a criminal, a fool or, as often as not — both.

Yet, even amid the silver screen cynicism, the yearning for Camelot persisted. Several of the more popular presidential movies of the 1990s enthusiastically embraced the heroic presidency.

Rob Reiner’s 1995 romantic comedy The American President featured Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd, a Democrat and widower who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening) and discovers his inner Bobby Kennedy.

Towards the end of the movie, Shepherd breaks from his handlers’ poll-tested script to tell America that by God, he’ll fight for dramatic CO2 reductions and a crime bill based on the premise that handguns are “a threat to national security.” He closes the speech by vowing: “I’m gonna get the guns…. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President.”

In the hit films Independence Day (1996) and Air Force One (1997), our superhero president fights all enemies foreign, domestic — and even extraterrestrial. In Independence Day, Bill Pullman’s President Thomas J. Whitmore, a Gulf War hero and former fighter pilot, takes to the skies to do battle against aliens who threaten the American homeland.

A year later, Air Force One made clear that Hollywood’s heroic president is always a Wilsonian. That film opens with a speech by President James Marshall (played by Harrison Ford), delivered on Russian soil, in which Marshall chastises his country and himself for being reluctant to use force when American interests are not at stake.

On the flight home from Moscow, Russian fascists hijack the presidential plane. Ford’s President Marshall deals with security threats even more directly than Pullman’s President Whitmore, personally killing terrorists with his bare hands.

Ivan Reitman’s 1993 comedy Dave didn’t offer the cathartic violence of Air Force One, but it captured Americans’ conflicting attitudes toward the office perhaps better than any other presidential movie of the era. In a twist on the familiar “evil twin” genre, Dave gave America two presidents, the corrupt William Harrison Mitchell and his noble doppelgänger Dave Kovic, both played by Kevin Kline.

“Dave” is an ordinary businessman who, taking advantage of his uncanny resemblance to Mitchell, also moonlights as a presidential impersonator. The real President Mitchell, much like Judson C. Hammond in 1933’s Gabriel over the White House, is an amoral wretch who can’t keep his hands off the help.

Where Hammond fell into a coma after a car accident, Mitchell succumbs to a stroke while having sex with a presidential aide. With the real president incapacitated, his sinister chief of staff tries to seize power by covering up the coma and using Dave Kovic as a figurehead.

Kovic goes along with the scheme initially, but he soon proves impossible to control, deciding that as long as he holds the reins, he ought to use his powers to help Americans realize their dreams.

Kline’s “Dave” is a Jimmy Stewart everyman who shows how easy fixing the country’s problems can be when we have a president who is pure of heart. In one scene, Dave and his accountant buddy Murray sit down, roll up their sleeves and — armed only with a pen, a legal pad and their fundamental decency — draw up a new budget that saves money and cures homelessness.

By portraying the real president as a cad, Dave was at least willing to entertain the possibility that power corrupts. Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing found that notion unbearably pessimistic and built one of the most popular political dramas in television history around the concept of an incorruptible president devoted to good works.

In 1999, inspired by the research he did as the screenwriter for The American President, Sorkin sold NBC on the idea of a show designed to counter the prevailing cynicism about politics. Unabashed idealism proved to be a winning formula, as West Wing garnered high ratings and 26 Emmys over its seven-year run.

Yet despite the snappy repartee and often witty scripts, West Wing was a remarkably silly program. Has there ever been a group of real White House staffers as admirable and lovable as the West Wing ensemble, that selfless, high-minded, public-spirited, fundamentally decent pack of…political operators?

Sorkin’s White House existed in a bizarre world where the Oval Office is apparently devoid of office politics. Fans of the show never saw the sort of infighting, backstabbing and jockeying for position that appear in real-world accounts of White House life, like George Reedy’s Twilight of the Presidency and John Dean’s Blind Ambition.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine any of the West Wing staffers behaving like a young John Dean, scheming to use the IRS against the administration’s political enemies, or a young Bill Moyers, urging the FBI to spy on antiwar congressmen. Could a Dick Morris or a David Addington ever walk the halls with saintly C.J. and noble Toby?

In the fantasy world of The West Wing, that was unlikely. The arrogance of power was nowhere to be found. Sorkin had managed to design a show that — in 21st century America — was markedly less cynical than Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

ABC’s briefly popular West Wing knockoff Commander in Chief (2005) took the romance of the Imperial Presidency even further. In her first three days as president, Geena Davis’s Mackenzie Allen proved as bellicose as any alpha male. She sent the Sixth Fleet through the Taiwan Straits to intimidate China and ordered U.S. troops into action twice — once to capture a drug-running, Noriega-like dictator from the country of “San Pascuale,” and again to save a woman in Nigeria who’s about to be executed under sharia law for adultery.

As U.S. marines led the rescued prisoner to a waiting helicopter, the camera cut to President Allen delivering the line “I will always defend the Constitution” — a crashing non sequitur, given the context. Nonetheless, National Review Online gave Mac’s decision an approving shout-out: “You go, girl.”

Likewise, Presidents on FOX’s 24 are never far from the action, sometimes giving direct orders to the show’s protagonist, Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, a federal counterterrorism agent. Bauer has served under two black Presidents, making 24 years ahead of Obama’s election.

However, 24’s depiction of the first black President, played by Dennis Haysbert, combined the best and worst characteristics typically found on the big screen: a noble, intelligent and well-meaning figure but still with a tragic flaw — the controlling influence of his neurotic ex-wife.

Presidents of the big and small screens are designed as characters worthy of either worship or revile. In either case, Americans are most entertained by a fictional President when he or she has ample opportunity to provide audiences with drama and explosions.