Today Americans are far more suspicious of presidential power than they were in the '50s and early '60s. Yet the fantasy of the redeemer president dies hard. That vision of the office can be found in almost every forum in which Americans interpret the presidency: in the movies, on television, in the perennial rankings of presidents, and on talk shows and op-ed pages.
The presidential movies and television programs of the last decade and a half make plain America's bipolar attitude toward executive power. 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 (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 one 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 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 the 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 (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.
Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing 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? 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' Mackenzie Allen proved as bellicose as any alpha male, sending the Sixth Fleet through the Taiwan Straits to intimidate China, and ordering U.S. troops into action 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."
Yet despite the vestiges of hero-worship on display in the press and in popular entertainment, we treat the presidency with less sentimentality and less respect than we have in years. American political culture in the 21st century is crass and ill-mannered; it holds no idols sacred, and for that reason it grates on those who prefer a more accommodating, respectful approach to political disagreement. But in its own way, our offensive, sometimes paranoid, and always confrontational orientation reflects an 18th-century American sensibility.
In 2006, Daily Show alum Steven Colbert was the featured comic at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, the annual gathering of D.C. journalists where the president is expected to show up and be a good sport by putting up with some gentle ribbing. Colbert wasn't gentle. In character as the moronic right-wing talk show host he plays on the Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, Colbert compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, sarcastically applauded our "success" in Iraq and suggested that the president was an ignoramus who refused to seek accurate information because "reality has a well-known liberal bias." Colbert's performance was open, in-your-face disrespect for the presidency, and many people didn't care for it. Many didn't like it 10 years earlier at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when President Clinton had to sit uncomfortably while shock-jock Don Imus cracked jokes about Clinton's marital infidelities (though, then as now, how offended one was largely depended on one's party affiliation).
Mocking those who rule us might seem immature, but consider the alternative: From FDR through LBJ, for nearly four decades, Americans forgot their heritage of political distrust, and looked to the Oval Office with a childlike faith in the occupant's benevolence. The age of the heroic presidency left a legacy of ruinous wars, unrestrained executive surveillance and repeated abuses of civil liberties. Perhaps a little disrespect is in order, and perhaps there are worse things, after all, than making the president a punching bag and punchline.