Fictional presidents have often featured in movies and TV. The portrayals range from bombastically heroic to insidiously depraved — with plenty of room in the middle for comic ineptitude, boring normalcy, and thinly veiled ciphers of their real-world equivalents.
As part of a recent survey on more workaday political matters — right track/wrong track, Biden approval, issue polling, etc. — polling firm Echelon Insights also asked those surveyed for their view on their favorite fictional president. Here are the results:
President Thomas Whitmore from Independence Day and President Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing ranked as voters’ favorite fictional Commander-in-Chiefs, each garnering around 10% support. pic.twitter.com/fCq98LZeqB
— Echelon Insights (@EchelonInsights) January 31, 2022
Thomas Whitmore is a great choice. Not only did President Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman) maintain national (and global!) morale during the cataclysmic alien invasion depicted in Independence Day:
He also personally flew in the combat mission that led to the aliens’ worldwide defeat. Pity the poor soul who had to go up against this man for reelection — a scenario amusingly imagined by McSweeney’s a few years back. A sample:
WOLF BLITZER, MODERATOR: Welcome to the CNN debate for the 1996 presidential election. President Whitmore, let me begin by thanking you for saving our country and the entire world from the alien invasion this past July 4th.
PRESIDENT THOMAS WHITMORE: I just did what any other fighter jet pilot hero president would have done.
(THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE THAT TURNS INTO A STANDING OVATION)
GOVERNOR PATRICK STEVENS: While I too am grateful for President Whitmore’s actions, I hope we’re actually going to have a substantive policy debate tonight.
BLITZER: Yes, of course. Candidates, please give your opening statements.
STEVENS: I’m Governor Pat Stevens. While I did not win my party’s primary, I am the only candidate that survived the alien invasion, or is not among the missing, or didn’t get caught trying to join the side of the aliens, or didn’t drop out due to fear of taking on the man who single-handedly thwarted the invasion. But this isn’t about how we got here. This is about moving forward. We have a lot of work ahead of us. While I may be the underdog due to President Whitmore’s past heroics, I believe that as president I can rebuild this country and lead us in a prosperous new direction.
WHITMORE: You all know me. I killed the aliens.
(RAPTUROUS APPLAUSE AND CHEERS)
Finally, as Sonny Bunch has convincingly argued (now there’s a sentence you don’t read every day), Whitmore is also a Republican.
Unfortunately, Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing comes in at No. 2. This is a far less defensible ranking. Bartlet is a fantasy concocted by Aaron Sorkin of the kind of president he wishes Bill Clinton had been. He is the unrealistic centerpiece of a show that believes all political problems can be solved by browbeating people with a cleverly written speech. And he is the primary vehicle through which Sorkin’s deluded perspective of how politics should work has come to infect Washington and so many of the eager-beaver box-checkers who come to it hoping they can make a difference after walking around some building a few times and having a clipped conversation with some important figure. Moreover, I’ve always found it funny, and weirdly appropriate, that Martin Sheen was cast in this role after previously portraying a demagogic, narcissistic (and, according to the main character’s visions, apocalyptic) would-be president in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone:
Bartlet should, at the very least, rank below James Marshall, Harrison Ford’s Midwestern man of action from Air Force One, who almost singlehandedly saves the presidential airplane from a group of terrorists. Led by Egor Korshunov (Gary Oldman, in his classic ’90s villain mode), they regard the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy for their native Kazakhstan. (Sounds familiar.) As Kurshunov justifies himself to Marshall:
You talk as you have nothing to do with this. This is all you are doing, this infection, you call freedom without meaning and without purpose. You have given my country to gangsters, and prostitutes. You have taken EVERYTHING FROM US! There’s nothing left.
Marshall, of course, goes all unipolar moment on this guy:
I have less to say about the other presidents on this list, having seen neither Veep nor House of Cards. I am not entirely comfortable with the binary that would have us select either one show or the other as more accurately depicting political reality, though if forced to choose, I would obviously pick the comically inept world of Veep over the insidious Machiavellianism of House of Cards as a better reflection of the world we inhabit. And a strange sort of kudos to the small percentage who chose Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho as their favorite fictional president. Camacho (Terry Crews), a former professional wrestler and porn star, presides memorably over the delipidated, corporatist, idiot-dominated, entertainment-driven dystopian future United States of Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy. We’re not quite there yet, and here’s hoping we never do arrive:
Many fictional presidents are not covered by this list, including two portrayed by Morgan Freeman. But it is an interesting list nonetheless, and much fodder for amusing discussion and consideration.