Fictional leaders

by Chris Bertram on April 8, 2004

I recently bought the DVDs of the first three series of The West Wing, which make for far too compulsive viewing. Watching it, the same thought occured to me as has occured to many others: namely, how much better President Josiah Bartlet is than any recent real-life incumbent. But it isn’t just Bartlet, 24’s President David Palmer would also get my vote (if I had one) over most post-war Presidents. Fictional Presidents seem to incarnate the ideal virtues of the office. Not so fictional British Prime Ministers, who seem to be either Machiavellian (Francis Urquhart ) or ineffectual (Jim Hacker ). Perhaps only Harry Perkins comes close to matching an ideal in the way that Bartlet and Palmer do. I’m not sure what this says about our different political and televisual/cinematic cultures and I’m sure there are more examples of fictional leaders to play with. Suggestions?

{ 55 comments }

1

fezziwig 04.08.04 at 5:06 pm

My favorite, who I think is a more accurate portrayal, is Buzz Windrip from Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here”. We should hope to reduce the presidential power, not to elect angels.

F

2

fezziwig 04.08.04 at 5:07 pm

My favorite, who I think is a more accurate portrayal, is Buzz Windrip from Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here”. We should hope to reduce the presidential power, not to elect angels.

F

3

Thorley Winston 04.08.04 at 5:08 pm

Fictional Presidents seem to incarnate the ideal virtues of the office.

Or rather because their creators can set up strawman arguments for the opposition.

4

Kip Manley 04.08.04 at 5:14 pm

Thanks for reminding me of “A Very British Coup.” I wish I had a copy handy; I’d take a double-shot of it and the bootleg Tintin “Breaking Free” whenever I needed that fairy-tale hit.

5

Bill Carone 04.08.04 at 5:20 pm

“Fictional Presidents seem to incarnate the ideal virtues of the office.”

Well, _someone’s_ ideal virtues … :-)

As you said, Perkins did embody _an_ ideal, whether or not it is _the_ ideal. Whereas Hacker, Urquhart, and the Prime Minister in _The Sandbaggers_ don’t embody any ideal.

Is that what you are getting at?

6

Ophelia Benson 04.08.04 at 5:28 pm

I know, I know, I always have exactly that feeling when watching the West Wing. Why is it so difficult? It’s not as if Bartlett is actually flawless after all! To say the least. But he is intelligent and knowledgeable and mentally engaged, and he doesn’t grope the female staff. Is that really so much to ask?

Fictional presidents aren’t all wet dreams though. I thought Dave in ‘Dave’ was a pathetic joke – he was just ‘likable’ in contrast to the George H.W. Bush-like real president – well the hell with that, putative likability is what we got in the whelp of GHWB and that’s no damn good, we need more than haha likability.

And then there’s Merkin Muffley or whatever his name was in Strangelove. ‘I agree with you, Dimitri, it’s good to be fine.’

7

james 04.08.04 at 5:36 pm

“…he is intelligent and knowledgeable and mentally engaged, and he doesn?t grope the female staff.”

Chuckle.

8

LizardBreath 04.08.04 at 5:38 pm

I’ve commented on this before, although possibly not here, but I think the difference is related to the fact that the US President is both Head of Government and Head of State.

An emotionally patriotic American, as most of us are regardless of how we feel about particular actions taken by our government, on some level feels that the office of the Presidency is a symbol of the country as a whole. Therefore a ‘normal’ incumbent of that office should incorporate all of the virtues that Americans feel should be associated with the country as a whole: honesty; competence; a love of peace combined with a willingness to fight for what is right; etc.; etc., and a President that doesn’t come up to this standard (as, of course, none of the real ones do) is somehow atypical. Creating a fictional President, the tendency is to approach this ‘norm’, and come up with a paragon of all the applicable virtues. It’s the same mechanism that leads supporters of a President (most notably Reagan in recent memory) to turn him into a little tin god; anything less than perfect isn’t good enough to be President.

The UK Prime Minister, as only a Head of Government rather than a Head of State as well, is just a politician, rather than a focus for all the patriotic feelings people have about Britain. A person who talked about ‘respect for the office of the Prime Minister’, the way some Americans talk about ‘respect for the office of the Presidency’ would, I believe, be laughed out of any reasonable conversation on British politics.

Personally, I think the UK system is healthier — we in the US should create a figurehead Head of State with no governmental responsibilities. It might make it easier to avoid the accusations of lack of patriotism that now accompany any disagreement with the Administration’s actions.

9

Thorley Winston 04.08.04 at 5:38 pm

Well as far as fictional presidents go, I do like Jack Ryan and John Sheridan.

10

Ophelia Benson 04.08.04 at 5:56 pm

“Personally, I think the UK system is healthier”

Yes, much healthier. Our tendency to mix the Pres up with Daddy and God and a guy it would be swell to have over for a barbecue and the flag and the Homeland and the King and the Murkan character – is deeply pathetic, frankly, and clouds the judgment when it comes time to create a chad.

11

cdc 04.08.04 at 5:57 pm

Don’t forget the brilliant political acumen of Harrison Ford as President James Marshall

12

mark 04.08.04 at 6:02 pm

I’m a bit embarrased, but I once voted as a write-in candidate for Governor of California for one Captain Jean-Luc Picard (he didn’t win). I envisioned Patrick Stewart playing captain Picard, with the writers of STNG figuring out how Jean-Luc would act when faced with tough executive decisions, and writing these parts for him. It would’ve been great…

13

tps12 04.08.04 at 6:04 pm

I always liked Alan Alda in Canadian Bacon.

14

Peter Briffa 04.08.04 at 6:04 pm

Don’t you think Martin Sheen was more personable, and had better values, when he was playing the Prez in the Dead Zone?

15

Thorley Winston 04.08.04 at 6:28 pm

Don’t you think Martin Sheen was more personable, and had better values, when he was playing the Prez in the Dead Zone?

Not much of a difference.

16

John Isbell 04.08.04 at 6:28 pm

I quite liked Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks. And Dana Carvey was a good President GHWB.

17

Scott Martens 04.08.04 at 6:52 pm

I’m told Arnold Schwartenegger actually won a vote for governor of California. You can’t tell me he’s a real person.

Kip, if you figure out how to score a copy of A Very British Coup, tell me where you got it. Also, I’ve never managed to see A House of Cards. I’ve seen the rest of the Urquhart series, but not the first, and I would really like to.

As for the main point, I too have noticed that British political fiction tends towards farce if not tragedy, while American political fiction tends to portray it’s fictitious presidents as ideal men. My theory is that it’s because the US is a monarchy and the UK is a republic.

Think about it for a second. I finished reading Captain Swing a couple weeks ago, and one of the things Hobsbawm points out is that the rebelling labourers kept trying to inform the proper authorities. They couldn’t believe that the King would countenance the injustices they faced. No one is quite so naive nowadays, but Americans still want a president who embodies the values the proles in Captain Swing believed the King to naturally have. The UK, in contrast, is used to seeing its PM’s treated as incompetent, dishonest scum all the time – that’s what Question Time is for.

Brits dream of being led by a competent politician, Americans want to be led by a father figure who embodies wisdom and dignity. Every four years, the US tried to elect most plausible king from the candidates; every now and then, the Brits go to the polls and pick the least incompetent general manager.

18

Chris Martin 04.08.04 at 6:57 pm

Someone — I can’t remember who — said that presidents should be selected in the same way juries are. I think it would actually be nice to have a presidential committee instead of a president and choose the members in the same way that a jury is chosen. That way you don’t have to worry about being governed by someone whose main achievement is to have played the slimy game of politics better than everyone else.

19

Chris Martin 04.08.04 at 7:02 pm

Having a figurehead Head of State in Britain has led to a persistence of the undemocratic, pre-Enlightenment institution of monarchy, an institution that is romanticized even though its past is about as shameful and bloody as any other autocratic style.

In India, on the other hand, the figurehead President has such little power that he’s more punchline than president.

20

Scott Martens 04.08.04 at 7:24 pm

Chris – my father, the lifelong Canadian socialist and stalwart NDP party committeeman – considered the British monarchy to be an archaic, useless, good-for-nothing institution that only served to assign Canadians a shadow identity as a people and a nation. He used to make banners for protests that read JUDY LAMARSH FOR QUEEN OF CANADA.

Until he met Prince Charles.

It’s not like he actually had a conversation with the guy or anything, or came to think that the royal family was enlightened in some way. He met him as a small part of a carefully constructed piece of political theatre – a royal tour of his mother’s colder and less visited nether realms. But after that he actually started defending the British monarchy. I’ve always been rather surprised how easy it is to get people who consider themselves very politically cynical all caught up in this sort of show piece.

Dad defended the monarchy on the following grounds: Better that old woman in London than making us elect a president who might actually think he has some authority. If I say that Paul Martin is a useless wanker, no one would ever suggest that I am subverting the Canadian state. If I say that George W. Bush is a complete waste of protein that could otherwise nourish ecologically useful insects, I am undermining the war on terrorism and denigrating America.

I think he overstated the point, but I do think he had one.

21

Kip Manley 04.08.04 at 7:26 pm

Coup is now available on DVD at Amazon. (Myself, I saw a second-generation videotape of one of the Masterpiece Theater broadcasts.) –But speaking of hard-to-find British thrillers: what I also want to get my hands on is Edge of Darkness. Wow, that was good.

But! Presidents and prime ministers. (Sounds like an Andy Partridge song.) –We just haven’t had our government up and running nearly as long over here as the Brits. Give us time. We’ll grow into our cynicism.

22

coglethorpe 04.08.04 at 7:31 pm

I have always liked the way the president is chosen in the US, but I don’t like how the candidates are chosen. Someone earlier referred to it as “the slimy game of politics” that is played to pick the two real choices for the president.

In my lifetime as a voter, I haven’t seen anyone who was a great choice. And this fall the choice is between Dumb and Dumberer. I may be as bad of a choice as I have seen in my lifetime, yet both parties rally around their man like he was chosen by God for the job. I don’t know about other countries (I’m American, did you expect more?), but in the USA, politics is a religion even atheists can practice.

23

Another Damned Medievalist 04.08.04 at 7:32 pm

How very coincidental — I’ve got the last Urquhart series at home right now! if you’re in the US, Netflix has all of it, as well as pretty much any other decent UK or US series you might want. I’m not sure that Urquhart is Machiavellian, though — he really goes so much farther. Maybe he’s Post-Machiavellian? Still, it rates for one of the best political series ever, IMO.

I think one of the things I like about Jed Bartlet (referred to by many of my colleagues here on campus as “our real president”) is that he has Capra-esque qualities. He’s Jefferson Smith transformed by a much more frightening and complicated world. The ideals are there, but Bartlet tries to make sense of the grey zones as well.

24

jamie 04.08.04 at 8:00 pm

“Someone — I can’t remember who — said that presidents should be selected in the same way juries are.”

That was H L Mencken, I think. He also suggested that ex-presidents should be publicly hanged as they depressed everybody.

Other than that, I’d like to second Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks for role of best fictional president.

25

Ophelia Benson 04.08.04 at 8:03 pm

“If I say that George W. Bush is a complete waste of protein that could otherwise nourish ecologically useful insects, I am undermining the war on terrorism and denigrating America.”

Well…there are still a hell of a lot of people who don’t buy that for a second. Aren’t there? I hope?

26

Chris Martin 04.08.04 at 8:07 pm

Scott

I think the difference is a matter of culture rather than a matter of who is head of state. In Britain, it’s simply culturally acceptable for the press to be very bluntly critical about the PM. Whereas in the U.S. the press always feels like it has to say “the president alleged . . . however . . .” even if the presidents tells a lie.

If your thesis is in fact true then in Britain criticism of the Queen should equate with undermining the war against terrorism.

As for your father’s “royal tour of Charles’s mother’s colder and less visited nether realms” I think that was a bit too much information ;)

27

Chris Martin 04.08.04 at 8:10 pm

Thanks Jamie.

And Gore Vidal said “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.”

I know, I’m just a weapon of mass quotation today.

28

digamma 04.08.04 at 8:13 pm

Personally, I think the UK system is healthier — we in the US should create a figurehead Head of State with no governmental responsibilities.

As far as choosing our royal family, I’m torn between the Bushes, the Kennedys, and the Jacksons.

Chris, I love 24, but I’m really amazed that there are people who think Palmer is anything but an atrocious President. How the hell do you get removed from office by the cabinet YOU NOMINATED YOURSELF? Every year Palmer pathetically gets himself into a jam and Jack Bauer has to save his butt. If Tom Clancy were the writer, Bauer would be President by now.

Britain is behind the US on the third season, so I won’t spoil it, but rest assured Palmer does some very dumb things.

29

Ian 04.08.04 at 8:16 pm

“My theory is that it’s because the US is a monarchy and the UK is a republic.”

It isn’t just me then…

30

Scott Martens 04.08.04 at 8:16 pm

Thanks, Kip. The Amazon page for A Very British Coup also – surprise, surprise – had a direct link to .

Ophelia – I hope so, but the Republicans keep dragging out lèse majesté as a campaign strategy.

31

Scott Martens 04.08.04 at 8:26 pm

Chris – obviously, Brits are quite critical of the royal family without being accused of treason. Rather, Britain is republic because no one is the monarch in the sense of being above ordinary political criticism. Although many Americans are critical of the president, many Americans still object quite voicefully if you are publically disrespectful towards the head of state simply because he is the head of state. “Respect for the office if not the man” – that was how my history teacher described it.

32

myko 04.08.04 at 8:27 pm

Jim Hacker from Yes, Prime Minister. Corrupt but good hearted and he had Sir Humphrey Appleby to keep the trains from running ontime.

33

Scott Martens 04.08.04 at 8:28 pm

<<The Amazon page for A Very British Coup also – surprise, surprise – had a direct link to A House of Cards.>>

34

fightingdem 04.08.04 at 8:46 pm

It sounds like we Yanks have much better fantasy leaders than you Brits. Which probably explains the difficulty many of us have in facing the truth about our leadership.

35

maurinsky 04.08.04 at 9:04 pm

In the U.S., another part of the problem is that there is always a core of voters who will support their President no matter what a lout or liar he is – they bestow their leader with a sort of divine benevolence that excuses his actions, no matter what they are. We only have to look at the current president and the previous president for evidence of this on both sides of the aisle.

I don’t know which system is better, but I have a feeling that the current U.S. president would spontaneously combust if he was ever faced with Question Time.

Also: I cannot sit through an entire episode of The West Wing, let alone a whole season. The speechifying, the walking and talking, the emotional drama – I just can’t stand it.

36

Ophelia Benson 04.08.04 at 9:21 pm

Fer sher. The current president nearly has a nervous breakdown any time anyone not on his payroll asks him a question. He has to think of some words to say, for a start.

37

mc 04.08.04 at 9:45 pm

digamma – eh, exactly… I was going to say the same thing. Palmer is good looking and charming but he is soo dumb. He can’t do anything without Bauer, he let his wife dupe him twice, and he needed to have it explained to him that it was better to detonate a nuke in the desert than off the coast of San Francisco. I could be president too if that’s the standard required.

There’s got to be some satirical message in there to justify those ridiculous plots. They’re fun though.

I don’t like The West Wing. It’s all too corny for me. And Sheen will always be Apocalypse Now. I can’t see anything he’s in and not think of that so I just can’t picture him as the goody goody president. He was far better in the jungle, paint on his face, opium and all…

Harrison Ford in Air Force One has got to be the most ludicrous representation of a President. He fights off every single terrorist himself! Wow! he saves his family and his country! awesome! Er, not. It made 24 plots seem realistic. How can people go see that kind of movie and not roll in laughter?

I think George Clooney would make a great president. For real. Not just in the movies. Improve the political reputation of America instantly. But he’s gonna be too old by the time Bush III gets ousted…

38

Tom Runnacles 04.08.04 at 10:23 pm

Jack Stanton, anyone?

I had a very surprising conversation with a really rather right-wing friend just the other day, whose announcement of her addiction to ‘The West Wing’ threw me quite a bit.

I’d supposed the whole point of that show was to provide lefty-liberal types like me with a sort of wet-dream what-if fantasy president whom we could happily imagine trying to doing all kinds of principled Johnson-without-Vietnam stuff.

No, it seems that a decent chunk of my chum’s devotion was to be explained by reference to the fact that Martin Sheen has great hair.

Gah.

39

Ophelia Benson 04.08.04 at 11:01 pm

“I’d supposed the whole point of that show was to provide lefty-liberal types like me with a sort of wet-dream what-if fantasy president whom we could happily imagine trying to doing all kinds of principled Johnson-without-Vietnam stuff.”

Of course it is, also Clinton-with-trousers-zipped stuff. That’s why I said wet dream way up above.

40

asg 04.08.04 at 11:49 pm

The best description I heard of The West Wing was as “political pornography for liberals”. I am glad to see some liberals endorsing this assessment.

41

msg 04.08.04 at 11:57 pm

“I’m not sure what this says about our different political and televisual/cinematic cultures…”

Not to split hairs and all, but you’re really talking about the different cultures of political and televisual/cinematic writers, mm?
Inasmuch as they produce the planking and caulking for the two cultures there’s a mapping/overlap, but the culture itself would be more the metabolized and redisplayed stuff that the writers put out.
It’s true that the writers themselves, when they’re on it, are reflecting the culture, but that reflection has a much wider field than the immediate contemporary. There isn’t much Shakespeare on TV; but there is, I’ll wager, in the lives and minds of writers like Aaron Sorkin and Paul Redford.
The big illusion is the TV is dispensing a kind of group vision – but it’s not.
It’s the very small very limited world-view of a highly-filtered and competitively scrambling subset of the subset which is Hollywood/TinselTown etc.
That out of that sub-subset comes work like The West Wing is inspiring and, to me, more a testament to something potential than currently extant in humanity.

42

digamma 04.09.04 at 12:36 am

I’d supposed the whole point of that show was to provide lefty-liberal types like me with a sort of wet-dream what-if fantasy president whom we could happily imagine trying to doing all kinds of principled Johnson-without-Vietnam stuff.

It’s Atlas Shrugged for Democrats!

And the best line Martin Sheen ever delivered as President was “Gentlemen, the missiles are flying. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.”

43

Nick B 04.09.04 at 12:43 am

President Andrew Shepherd in The American President is another idealised Clinton – with no Hillary attached either. Of course, he was pretty much Sorkin’s proto-Bartlett.

And Hugh Grant’s PM in Love, Actually seems like quite a nice bloke, complete with his crowd-pleasing ‘stand up to the Yanks’ speech.

Are there any depictions of leaders other than US Presidents and British PMs worth mentioning and how positive/negative are they? All that springs to mind is De Gaulle in The Day Of The Jackal which doesn’t really count. Plus, there’s the question of how modern monarchs (as opposed to historical ones, who can be depicted as either heroes or bastards) are depicted on screen – I can’t think of many examples there, either, but they seem to do better than political leaders (the King in To Play The King seems like a much nicer chap than Urquhart – admittedly, that’s not hard).

44

Tom T. 04.09.04 at 12:53 am

I always wanted James Noble from Benson as my governor.

45

Nabakov 04.09.04 at 5:38 am

Surprised no one’s mentioned Jeff Bridges in “The Contender” yet, the most Clintonesque screen president so far – especially with the running gag about his food consumption. Gary Oldman’s also brillant as a right wing senator in what is a pretty good film until they whack the standard happy-sappy ending on.

And speaking of “A Very British Coup”, two good books along the same lines are “The man to held the Queen to ransom and sent Parliament packing” by Peter Van Greenaway (late 60s, leftish) and “When the kissing had to stop” by Constantine Fitzgibbon (late 50s, rightish).

46

Nabakov 04.09.04 at 5:44 am

And there’s also Phil Hartman as a very Shrubby prez in “The Second American Civil War (HBO), complete with the late, great James Coburn as his Rovian advisor, James Earl Jones as a bemused newsroom head, Denis Leary as a gung-ho correspondent and Beau Bridges as a rebel lovesick Governor dealing with an influx of central Asian refugees after a nuclear exchange in the region.

47

Keith M Ellis 04.09.04 at 9:40 am

When I think of TV/film Presidents, I think of Reagan. Oh, wait.

Anyway, when I think of TV/film Presidents, I think of President Tom Beck in Deep Impact, played by Morgan Freeman. I remember watching that thinking, “Damn, I’d vote for Morgan Freeman for President in a heartbeat.”

48

apm 04.09.04 at 3:24 pm

The sad thing is Bartlet isn’t all that effectual. Despite his intelligence and idealism his administration barely treads water against the status quo and the opposition. It almost seems as if the liberal fantasy presidency is marked by bi-partisan policy tweaking and brilliant midnight bull sessions. On the other hand the conservative fantasy presidency is marked by movies such as “Independence Day” and “Air Force One”.

Oh well, maybe President Seaborn will get more done.

49

Phersu 04.09.04 at 5:38 pm

My favorite fictional British Prime Minister was Alan B’stard (from The New Statesman). He was far funnier than the one in Yes, Prime Minister. I think he ended as a fascist dictator, becoming “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth”.

But I also liked an American version where the British Prime Minister was a madman who asked Britons to commit mass suicides to reduce unemployment.

50

Another Damned Medievalist 04.09.04 at 6:03 pm

Hey — my Tory mum-in-law loves the West Wing. And I have to say I actually kinda liked the John Goodman interim president.

51

John Quiggin 04.09.04 at 11:10 pm

The only fictional portrayal of an Australian PM I can recall is in The Dish, where the PM says to aspiring candidate for office

“There’s one rule in our party. Don’t f**k up …”

“And ?”

“That’s it.”

(Can’t quite get the tonality right in print, but it’s a great line, and about as sympathetic as Australians are likely to go for in a fictional PM)

52

Nicholas Weininger 04.10.04 at 3:23 pm

It is worth noting that there have been, within living memory, *two* major-party candidates for US president who were honest, decent, intelligent and erudite, of exemplary personal character, and had some actual principles that they cared about more than brute power. One was from the left, and one from the right.

They were, respectively, Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater. Think about them, and the men who defeated them, and you will realize why no one of their moral and intellectual caliber will ever get a Presidential nomination again.

53

Ian 04.10.04 at 3:47 pm

I may be missing something but Goldwater????

54

Natalie Solent 04.10.04 at 7:30 pm

Yes, Ian. Goldwater.

Getting back to the original topic, readers might be interested by this article on the politics of fictional US presidents that Brian Micklethwait wrote for Samizdata a few days ago.

55

Lawrence Krubner 04.16.04 at 3:46 am

Our tendency to mix the Pres up with Daddy and God

I read a good history of the Presidency last year. One striking thing was the debate over America’s “Elected Monarchy”. The debate actually started in the 1790s, as soon as people saw the cast that Washington and Hamilton were putting on the Presidency. The debate ran pretty hot all through the 1800s. Lots of people from every party are on record as having raised questions about whether it was such a brilliant idea to make the head of state and the head of government the same person. Jackson’s enemies, who included everyone at one time or another, all expressed doubts about the “Elected Monarchy.” The debate only really died away after 1932, when an imperial presidency began to seem natural, for whatever reason.

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