It’s almost hard to believe that we are, at long last, in the final stretches of the 2008 presidential campaign. No matter which way you are inclined to vote (though particularly so if you skew blue, where the primary race felt almost as long as all seven seasons of The West Wing), there have been highs and lows, soaring rhetoric and unfortunate pot-shots, amongst the candidates who have at one point or another made their case to take the seat in the Oval Office. In a pop culture loving …um, culture such as ours, it’s hard sometimes not to hold up a mirror to those icons of celluloid and cathode that have enthralled us and, yes, sometimes freaked us right the hell out. Here is a sampling of some of the greatest and most dubious moments from notable fictional commanders-in-chief:
The Best: Andrew Shepherd, The American President
With every velvet-voiced, captivating cadence that made his Oscar-winning turn as prince of greed Gordon Gecko so mesmerizingly sleazy, there’s a pinch of irony in the fact that Michael Douglas also nailed arguably the most impassioned and stirring presidential speech in American film. On the surface Rob Reiner’s The American President is a smart but fairly pedestrian romantic comedy, yet the thoughtful statesmanship behind Shepherd’s policies and strategy is a testament to writer Aaron Sorkin’s undeniable prowess. Cornered by a hungry media wishing to take apart his personal life via lobbyist girlfriend Sydney Wade (Annette Bening), targeted for a “family values” pantsing by conservative blowhard opponent Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss, demonstrating why his Dick Cheney will likely be our number one reason to see Oliver Stone’s W. this month), Shepherd stands before the White House press corps and delivers a shattering smackdown that both humanizes and lionizes the man behind the podium: “We've got serious problems, and we need serious people. And if you want to talk about character, Bob, you'd better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up. This a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM the President.” Damn right you are.
Runner Up: Jackson Evans, The Contender
The thing most audiences remember first about Jeff Bridges’ effortlessly cool performance as the president in Rod Lurie’s polarizing political thriller is the moment where he’s visited by embattled VP appointee Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) and reveals one of his favorite perks of the job: testing the mettle of the White House kitchen staff to make whatever obscure sandwich he’s craving at a moment’s notice. Hell yeah, that’s real power for ya! Midnight cravings aside, however, the real jewel in the crown of Bridges’ steely commander in chief is the speech he makes to Congress in support of his nominee, squarely calling out the issue of separating one’s past mistakes from their inherent honor and ability to lead into the future. It’s especially good when he calls out noxious congressman Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman), who gets up to leave in the middle of the speech: “Mr. Runyon, you may walk out on me, you may walk out on this body, but you cannot walk out on the will of the American people. Americans are a good people; they're a just people, Mr. Runyon, and they will forgive you but they will not forget. Hate and ego have no place residing in what my good friend Laine Hanson calls the 'Chapel of Democracy'.” Sit yo’ ass down, Gary!
MVP: Josiah “Jed” Bartlett, The West Wing
Truth be told, the beloved leader at the center of seven years of one of our greatest television dramas owes a lot to his proverbial predecessor, Andrew Shepherd; not only did Aaron Sorkin conserve some great material he didn’t have room for in The American President, but Martin Sheen surely honed his feel for the rhythms of Sorkin’s dialogue in his supporting role as Shepherd’s chief of staff A.J. McInerney in the film. Throughout his administration, Bartlett faced innumerable crises at home and abroad, of foreign policy and domestic terrorism, of assassination attempts on his staffers and a debilitating struggle with multiple sclerosis that lent his leadership an FDR-like poignancy, yet never once was he let down by the writers’ eloquence, so much so that it’s virtually impossible to single out one speech from his tenure in our boob-tube political arena. Do yourself a favor and check them all out on DVD. (It’s a testament to the writing, as well, that when it came time to succeed Bartlett, both Democratic candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican opponent Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) were given pretty remarkable material of their own. No wonder the pundits during the Democratic convention were eager to commend the best bits of Barack Obama’s speech as “almost Sorkin-like.”)
The Worst: James Marshall, Air Force One
Let’s be honest: Everybody loves a hero. No one would deny the appeal of a president who can sling a punch both physical and verbal and throw down the gauntlet when the agents of evil turn up on his very doorstep (Or in this case, runway.) And Harrison Ford’s turn as James Marshall is rich with the rough-hewn yet intelligent resolve that has made him the go-to guy of our generation for heroes you’d be a straight-up fool to fuck with. What lands him at the top of our worst list, then, is not his undeniable toughness but the sour taste that the tone of it leaves in our mouths at this point in our history, having lived the last eight years with a real president who doesn’t quite seem to understand that a president should deliver his ultimatums with as much care as conviction. Standing before the Russian premier and various emissaries to admit that the hands-off approach of his administration to atrocities abroad may be partially at fault for the terrorist attempt on his life, he offers a resolution not to shy away from diplomacy in the future yet christens it with all the subtlety of a back-alley brawl: “We will never negotiate. We will no longer tolerate and we will no longer be afraid. It's your turn to be afraid.” Don’t know, maybe a little bit too much room for speculation there? You be the judge.
Runner Up: Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day
Oh, this is a tough one. It’s really, really hard not to like Bill Pullman as an actor; he’s got some the aw-shucks charm of Jimmy Stewart in his heyday crossed with the irrepressible cuteness of the quarterback in high school that you fancied from afar. As a waningly-popular president who regains his command of the office while faced with unspeakable tragedy – including the death of his wife – at the hands of some E.T.’s so nasty they’d make H.G. Wells cringe, his fighter pilot turned leader of the free world is, if you think about it, probably the guy John McCain wishes he were in his wildest dreams. And in that sis-boom-bah, rally-the-troops rhetoric that Irwin Allen-aspirators Devlin and Emmerich are so enamored of, Whitmore’s battle cry at the climax of ID4’s assault on the invading alien forces is actually pretty inspiring thanks to the conviction with which he delivers it. Except when he gets to the part where the liberation of the human race is all about us: “Perhaps its fate that today is the 4th of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution — but from annihilation.” Oh sure, he says later that it will cease to be known as an American holiday, but one has to wonder if the writers felt it might hold quite as much sway if the aliens had decided to attack on Bastille Day. Or perhaps during Ramadan.
MVP: Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica
Yes, certainly, you’re saying that this is about fictional U.S. presidents… not presidents of intergalactic colonies in an exodus from extinction. Fact of the matter is, though, that Ron Moore and David Eick’s remarkable re-imagining of the old 70’s sci-fi series is every inch as politically relevant as anything Sorkin or anyone else has come up with, if not more for the manner in which it blurs the lines of morality and questions the very nature of humanity. (The show was written in part as a response to 9/11.) President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), a powerful leader though herself no stranger to questionable motives, remains the iconic heart of the series but she’s yet to deliver a truly memorable speech. Meanwhile Gaius Baltar (James Callis, so underrated), the attention-loving ego-machine who unintentionally abetted the Cylons and sold out his people, has spent the ensuing struggle more or less manipulating the remainder of the human race to feel better about himself. He is our MVP of worsts not because his speeches ring hollow or untrue but because they’re usually frighteningly good. Capitalizing on his popularity as a scientific genius to cake-walk into the vice presidency, smarming his way up to the top office by appealing quite convincingly to a populace tired of fighting who just wanted to get by, then rolling over once the enemy came back to finish the job; his conniving ways have even lead other characters, such as Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) to deliver heart-wrenching if under-informed speeches on his behalf. (Sort of like a democratic congress moving on their convictions without a full command of the facts?… hmm…) Baltar is the most dangerous sort of leader because he’s willing to do anything to save his ass, which usually involves telling us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. Which is to say nothing of the soul-soothing diatribes he’s issuing now that he’s been deposed, acquitted of treason, found God and is and declaring himself a messiah: “God loves you all because you’re perfect!” Right, and you’re at the top of the list, aren’t you, Mr. President?