The Best Fictional Presidents
January 15, 2007
When presidents appear in fiction, they too often are either a) a villain b) completely worthless and need to be rescued from a kidnapping c) there only to hand out medals. As a profession, fictional president has few success stories. There are a few, however, who stand out from the crowd. Here now, in a YS exclusive, I will present the definitive list of best fictional presidents and decide upon a single greatest chief executive.
As with any ranking, we must first establish the criteria. We will judge the candidates based on a variety of factors, but mostly in terms of their achievements in office. Personal characteristics are important, but tangible displays of leadership and benefit to the nation are paramount. A president could be the biggest SOB and still do right by the country. Political success is also important. Were they popular? Within the context of the fictional world, how is their legacy viewed? Verisimilitude is also important. How plausible is it that such a person could become president or that their outlined policies would be effective? In other words, no Mike Brady (sorry, Gary Cole). Lastly, we need to consider the quality of the fiction. We don’t want to hold bad movies against great presidents too much (if we did, this would be a pretty short exercise), but there needs to be some sort of justice exacted for particularly offensive films.
A niche staple of the comic book industry has been the alternate reality that happens outside of main continuity (Marvel’s “What If…” and DC’s Elseworlds lines being the most famous). Among these stories are ones where Superman or Captain America get elected to office. While these books are usually very detailed in terms of policy (making them ideal for judging presidential performance), it is not fair to compare them to mere mortals.
There have been a surprising number of fictional presidents on the Simpsons. From Lenny to Kang, many of our favorite characters have sat in the Oval Office. Across the board, however, they tragically fail the plausibility standard. There is enough material there, though, that should the public demand it (as I assume it will) a follow-up ranking could be made.
I don’t use pastiche per the original definition of the word: a hodge-podge of several original works. Rather, I am using the more modern definition of an imitation (“You got word blogging on my politics blogging!” “You got politics blogging on my word blogging!”). Basically, this is just to disqualify John Travolta/Bill Clinton.
While I can’t be 100% sure, I don’t believe any real president has been fictionalized as many times as Tricky Dick. Whether featured as abolishing term limits to stay in power (Back to the Future II, or Watchmen) or simply as a murderous cyborg monstrosity bent on world domination (Futurama), Fictional Nixon has clearly captured the minds of writers and the hearts of America. We may not have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore, but Fictional Nixon is here to stay.
Warren G. Harding
A tool of the political machine if there ever was one, Harding’s two-year reign and hands-off approach (read: lazy) to governing makes him America’s most fictional “real” president. Harding was chosen to run for the highest office in the land based on the fact that he “looked like a president.” Harding will also forever hold a place in the hearts of us here at the Sal since he was primarily responsible for the neologism that was “normalcy.” Not only was he a fake president, but he used fake words.
Monroe “Eagle” Cole (from Welcome to Mooseport)
Pros: First president to get a divorce while in office and we here at the Sal are, if anything, for breaking down barriers. Most importantly, though, he leaves office with huge approval numbers. We don’t learn too much about his policies, but we do know that his nickname is Eagle. Not only that, but he often refers to himself in the third person as “the Eagle.”
Cons: After leaving office, he gets stuck in a tough mayoral race with Ray Romano in the backwater town of Mooseport. He loses, which definitely tarnishes his record, but even winning would hurt his image. Also, he clearly wasn’t a good enough president to carry this horrible movie.
Thomas J. Whitmore (from Independence Day)
Pros: Whitmore was a decorated air force vet (from the Gulf War) who successfully united the world to fight off an alien invasion of catastrophic proportions. He even shows great personal valor by flying an aircraft during the final assault. Prior to invasion, he was ranked as one of the world’s sexiest men.
Cons: He also shows poor leadership by flying that airplane. He’s the president, not a grunt. He needs to keep himself safe in the event the attack fails. Putting himself in harm’s way was reckless. Also, by all accounts, his administration was floundering before the attack. Without the invasion, he likely would have gone down as a mediocre president.
Josiah Bartlet (from The West Wing)
Pros: Wildly popular two-term Democrat, Bartlet is probably the most qualified man to ever sit in the fictional Oval Office. Nobel Laureate, two-term governor, descendant from a founding father, and theologian, Bartlet is a true renaissance man. He brought peace to the Middle East, oversaw a huge economic expansion, and even saved social security. His legacy was given the stamp of approval by the American people as it elected a new Democrat as president and sent a Democratic to congress. He is basically everything Bill Clinton was, plus everything Bill Clinton wanted to be.
Cons: Bartlet’s first years in office were marked by aimlessness and ineffectiveness. More troublesome, however, is the open-ended military commitments Bartlet has made overseas. Tens of thousands of troops are stationed in Israel-Palestine to keep the peace, but for how long? And if (when) that conflict flares up again, they will be caught in the crossfire if the bitterest of enemies. In Kazakhstan, Bartlet deployed very significant forces to deter China and Russia from fighting a war. The situation, is ready to explode, leaving our troops stuck in the middle of two regional superpowers. Bartlet, however, does not have to deal with these problems and can instead foist his reckless militarism off onto Patsy Santos.
Dave Kovic (from Dave)
Pros: Dave, while pretending to be President Bill Mitchell, becomes an exceptionally popular president. He manages to shave $656 million off the budget in order to provide more funding for the homeless and initiates a successful job creation package.
Cons: He starts out as a presidential impersonator for events, but then ends up impersonating the guy full time? And nobody (except Oliver Stone in a cameo) notices? The movie makes it a lot more plausible than you might think, but it’s still pretty unlikely. Also, the way he manages to cut the money from the budget is that he calls his accountant friend over to the White House and they fix everything over dinner. To top it off, Dave then proposes those cuts at a cabinet meeting. Cabinet meetings are just photo-ops at this point and rarely meet (let alone decide real policy), but this is also identified as the hundredth cabinet meeting of the administration. A hundred cabinet meetings? Not very likely.
To make matters worse for President Kovic, his policies seem a little misguided. In a big agenda-setting speech, he proposed the goal of letting any American who wants a job, have a job. A noble goal in many respects, but any economist could tell you that reaching 100% employment would be incredibly inefficient. Also, has Malthus taught us nothing? If you provide shelter for the homeless, why, they’re just going to breed more. Kovic’s bleeding heart liberalism committed the federal government to a never ending and increasingly expanding welfare program.
James Marshall (from Air Force One)
Pros: Decorated Vietnam veteran uses his combat training to retake presidential airplane after it has been hijacked by Kazakh terrorists.
Cons: But he never should have been on the plane in the first place. He had the opportunity to escape the plane, but selfishly chose to stay behind and save his family. What about his country? Had he died, he would have left Glen Close in charge of the country. Marshall’s administration is allegedly “tough” on terrorism, but the only glimpse we get into his policies is from the speech he makes at the beginning where he *gasp* boldly upholds decades of American policy to not negotiate with terrorists. Even if that policy was largely on hiatus during the Reagan Administration, it’s not exactly earth-shatteringly brilliant leadership. Besides, if he really wanted to be tough on terrorism, he would have invaded Iraq.
The big knock against Marshall, though, is the fact that the Kazakhs even got on the plane in the first place. What kind of administration is he running? The utter lack of security represents a critical failure of leadership.
The President (from Superman II)
Pros: This unnamed chief executive may only play a minor role in the film, but in his brief screen time he shows off his visionary leadership. As General Zod assumed his rightful place as ruler of Earth, the President wisely chose to acquiesce to the overwhelming superiority of the General. Resistance would have been pointless and it is likely that this president spared a great many lives.
Cons: While he knelt before Zod as he should have, in his address to the people of Earth, he deviated from the General’s script and foolishly sought the aid of Superman.
Judson C. “Judd” Hammond (from Gabriel Over the White House)
Pros: After a near-death experience and a vision of the archangel Gabriel, Hammond solves the great depression, takes over congress, sends the army after the mob, and forces global disarmament, thus avoiding World War II. Oh yeah, and he ascends to heaven after completing his works on Earth.
Cons: He’s kind of a fascist, but big deal. Who isn’t? If he were really so great, he would have stayed on Earth to continue to iron-fistedly rule his utopia.
Judd Hammond, hands down. The whole movie was created by Hearst to show FDR how great a president he could be if he just decided to become a strong-armed dictator. Now that’s good propaganda.Disagree with my choices? Well, you’re probably wrong. I am a doctor of presidentialology, after all.
Next Time: The Worst Fictional Presidents