By this time next week it will all, at long last, be over. The American people will have spoken, and - barring any last-second temper tantrums, court challenges or some other kind of monkey wrench thrown into the works - we will know who the 45th President of the United States will be and, for better or worse, we’ll be getting our first real glimpse into what the next four years may hold for our nation.
But I don’t want to talk about the election or the candidates anymore. It’s just gotten too darn depressing and divisive, turning friends and family and co-workers against one another like nothing we’ve seen since… well, I was going to say the Civil War but feel free to draw your own historical analogies at this point. Like I said, I don’t want to talk about it anymore at the moment.
That said, I feel a certain obligation as a newspaper columnist to offer some manner of presidential-related commentary. Heck. it’s practically a job requirement.
Well, never let it be said that Mrs. Small’s oldest son was ever guilty of shirking his responsibilities to the Fourth Estate. But also let it never be said that I met those obligations in any way other than my own. I am nothing if not my own man, an individual who refuses to be bound by the yoke of others’ expectations.
So today, ladies and gentlemen, I am setting aside the tableaux of real-world history for just the briefest of moments in favor of sharing with you the following list of some of the more memorable fictional U.S. Presidents, as depicted in literature, movies, television, et cetera. I think I am safe in saying that some of the individuals on this list would be better for our country than any of the four names appearing on next Tuesday’s ballot; others, I’m sorry to say, probably make this year’s choices seem like a godsend by comparison, which in itself is why they are memorable.
With that in mind (cue the Marine Corps Marching Band):
• James Marshall (portrayed by Harrison Ford in the 1997 film Air Force One) - The man who breathed life into two of America’s greatest pop culture icons - Han Solo and Indiana Jones - gave us an entirely different kind of action hero in this popular movie about a group of Russian terrorists who hijack the president’s plane. The real president at the time, Bill Clinton, was a huge fan of the film; earlier this year, a poll published by the Wall Street Journal named Ford’s character America’s greatest fictional president.
• Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet, PhD. (portrayed by Martin Sheen in the 1999-2006 television series The West Wing) - As much as I’ve always admired Ford, I have to admit that I am among those who would have placed Sheen’s character ahead of Ford’s in that aforementioned WSJ poll. I often finding myself wishing that Jed Bartlett was real, and I’m not alone in that feeling; former real-life White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry once described Bartlet as the ideal president, possessing “the compassion and integrity of Jimmy Carter... that shrewd decision-making and hard-nosed realism of a Richard Nixon... the warmth and amiability and the throw-the-arm-around-the-shoulder of a Bill Clinton; (and) the liberal passion of a Teddy Kennedy.” And boy, we sure could use a candidate like that now.
• Prez Rickard (depicted in the satirical 1973-74 comic book series Prez, published by DC Comics) - The brainchild of writer Joe Simon - the legendary co-creator of Captain America - Prez told the story of the first teenaged President of the U.S., whose election was made possible by a Constitutional amendment lowering the age of eligibility to accommodate the youth culture of the baby boom, and who was named “Prez” by his mother because she just knew he would grow up to become president. (He rewards Mom’s faith by naming her as his vice president.) Conceived as a political satire, the book pitted its fictional president battling a crime lord named Boss Smiley, a legless vampire and an extreme right-wing militia (led by a fictional great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew of George Washington) before the series was abruptly cancelled after only four issues; the character also appeared in a 1974 issue of Supergirl, in which the superheroine saves Prez from an assassination attempt. One of the sillier comic books series of its time… but also one of the most fun.
• Sarah Susan Eckert (depicted in J.M. Dillard’s novelization of the 1989 movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) - Eckert is only mentioned in the book version as an historical figure and doesn’t appear at all in the movie itself, which is a shame because she sounds like she must have been an interesting character. Described in the novel as the United States’ first Native American president, she is mentioned in a scene which depicts her faces as having been added to Mount Rushmore - clearly implying that posterity regards her as being on a par with Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. Nearly 30 years after first learning of her existence I’d still love to know more about her. (I am particularly curious to find out whether she may somehow be descended from my good buddy, fellow writer and fellow Star Trek fan, Win Scott Eckert; one of my future relatives, it seems, is the Oklahoma farmer on whose property the first Klingon to make contact with Earth crash-landed in “Broken Bow,” the first episode of Star Trek: Enterprise; it would be cool to think Win and I both have familial links to this particular vision of the future…)
• Charles Foster Kane (depicted in the novel Back in the USSA by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman) - In this interesting “alternate history” novel, the protagonist of Orson Welles’ classic film becomes Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate in 1912 and ascends to the presidency when Roosevelt is assassinated in Chicago before before his inauguration. The book’s plot has Kane bringing the U.S. into World War I following the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Titanic on Oct. 9, 1914, and ultimately being overthrown and executed by a Communist revolution.
• John Curtin (depicted in the 1967 novel Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson) - Like Sarah Eckert, Curtin is mentioned only as a historical figure in this classic science fiction novel, but he is hardly held in the same esteem as the literary Star Trek character mentioned above. Curtin is described as having been the father of several children who, years before the events of the novel (and the film and TV series it later inspired), advocated a one-child policy to deal with overpopulation - very much like the real-life policy established in China some years back. But with dire consequences: Curtin’s plan results in protests that eventually leads to a nuclear war.
• Tom Beck (portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the 1998 film Deep Impact) - As far as I’m concerned this is one of Freeman’s best roles: the President of the U.S. at the time that much of the Eastern Seaboard is devastated by a comet, whose impact in the Atlantic Ocean causes a mega-tsunami. Beck is presented as a leader who is able to overcome his own fears and self-doubts for the good not only of the U.S., but for all Mankind, personally leads the reconstruction efforts after a second comet is destroyed.
• Francis Xavier Kennedy (depicted in the novel The Fourth K by Mario Puzo) - In this interesting 1990 novel, Puzo (the author of The Godfather) presents the story of a fictional nephew of John and Bobby Kennedy who - much like our current real-life president, Mr. Obama - is elected president after serving a single term in the U.S. Senate. The fictional President Kennedy’s first act in office is to donate his $40 million fortune to relieve the national debt, but things get weird from there; during his administration the Pope is executed, his daughter is kidnapped and a bomb detonated in Manhattan - the latter leading to an act of retaliation in which the capital city of the fictional Arabian country of Sherbin is destroyed. The book was not a commercial success, but it is actually better (in my opinion) than The Godfather and definitely worth seeking out.
• Roderick Kinnison (depicted in the “Lensman” series of science fiction novels by E.E. Smith) - Kennison first appears in the second volume of this classic pulp series, First Lensman (1950), in which he is elected President of North America (a republic composed of the former nations of Canada, the United States, and Mexico) on the “Cosmocratic Party” ticket. The story depicts North America as still using the electoral college system, with the president elected to a five-year term. The novel takes place several hundred years in the future after Earth has recovered from the devastation of World War III.
• William Harrison “Bill” Mitchell/Dave Kovic (two distinct characters - the actual president and his look-alike decoy - both portrayed by Kevin Kline in the 1993 movie Dave) - In one of the greatest political films since the classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Kline portrays both a notorious philanderer of a president and the impersonator hired to keep Americans - including the First Lady - from knowing the truth when the president is incapacitated by a massive massive stroke during a sexual liaison with his secretary. Dave is a reluctant pretend president at first, but he ends up being a better leader than the one he is impersonating and actually ends up providing a positive legacy for a leader who probably wouldn’t have had one otherwise. It’s a great film.
• Merkin Muffley (portrayed by Peter Sellers in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) - Modeled somewhat after Adlai Stevenson II, Muffley is one of three characters Sellers played in Stanley Kubrick’s famed political black comedy. Muffley’s efforts to thwart an escalating nuclear crisis is rendered useless by his indecisiveness, and results in the detonation of the Soviet Doomsday Device that destroys most life on the planet. Did I mention that this is a comedy…?
• Henry Talbot MacNeil (portrayed by Ford Rainey in the 1964-68 TV series Voyage Of The Bottom The Sea) - MacNeil only appeared in a handful of episodes of this Irwin Allen series, all of them during the first two years of the show’s run, but in those he is depicted as an extremely popular president who apparently was able to prevent World War III not once but twice. The character also turned up briefly in the first episode of Allen’s other popular series, Lost In Space, which on the face of it may seem odd since LOS is set more than a decade after the events of Voyage and he obviously could not still have been president at that point. My take on this has always been that MacNeil at that point is the former president, but it is also possible that - since it is a science fiction series set in what was then the future - the U.S. may have done away with its two-term limit on the presidency.
• President Widmark (first name unknown; portrayed by Ronald Lacey in the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension) - Widmark is a minor character in this science fiction cult classic, but his brief time on screen is certainly memorable as - while confined to a specially made hospital bed due to an undisclosed back ailment - he declares war on the Soviet Union by signing the “Short Form” of the Declaration of War. He also gets one of the most memorable lines in the movie: “Buckaroo, I don’t know what to say...Lectroids? Planet 10? Nuclear extortion? A girl named John?”
• Hugo Allen Winkler (depicted in the short story “The Tercentenary Incident” by Isaac Asimov) - One of my favorite examples of those stories in which Asimov deftly combines the science fiction and mystery genres, originally published in the August 1976 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and later reprinted in the collections The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories (1976) and The Complete Robot (1982).This one tells the story of America’s 57th president who is assassinated on July 4, 2076, and replaced with a robot impostor who (like the title character in the movie Dave listed above) continues to run the country undetected.
• Thomas J. Whitmore (portrayed by Bill Pullman in the 1996 film Independence Day, and its 2016 sequel Independence Day: Resurgence) - If Harrison Ford hadn’t come along as President Marshall just one year after the release of the original Independence Day, Whitmore might well be remembered as Hollywood’s most heroic fictional president. The first film depicts Whitmore as a veteran of Operation Desert Storm who personally leads surviving Earth resistance military forces into battle against alien invasion/occupation forces on July 4, 1996 - making him the first US Commander-in-Chief to lead troops into combat since James Madison took command of a rearguard artillery battery to cover the retreat of the US Army during the British attack on Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812. The second film (spoiler alert!) has Whitmore sacrificing his life to save Mankind again by manually detonating cold fusion bombs inside an alien queen’s ship outside of Area 51.
• Jordan Lyman (depicted in the 1962 novel Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II,, and portrayed by Fredric March in the 1964 film adaptation written by Rod Serling) - Probably more by accident than design, Lyman and President Whitmore from Independence Day appear to virtually be from the same mold. Both presidents are initially depicted as being somewhat mediocre and not all that certain of themselves, but over the course of their respective stories go on to exhibit the kind of leadership needed for dealing with unprecedented crises. In Lyman’s case the threat comes not from outer space but from inside his own administration, in the form of an attempted coup d’etat staged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The novel and the movie both rank among the best of their era.
• Special mention must also be made of three fictional Hollywood presidents whose names are never mentioned in their respective film appearances, but whose actions make them quite memorable all the same. They are: the president played by William Windom in the 1973 film Escape from the Planet of the Apes, who reluctantly gives the order to terminate the unborn child of Cornelius and Zira; the leader who capitulates to the Kryptonian super-villain General Zod in Superman II (1981), portrayed by E.G. Marshall; and Alan Alda’s unnamed president in the 1995 comedy Canadian Bacon, who starts a a fake cold war with Canada in an attempt to boost his approval ratings.
• Finally - and if you’ll forgive this poor, struggling writer a moment of self-promotion - I’d like to also include an “honorable mention” in the form of Sally Anne Patterson, the character I created for a short story included in my 2011 collection Something In The Air. Written in the form of an obituary following President Patterson’s passing, The story, entitled “In Memorium: Sally Anne Patterson,” tells the story of how Patterson was first elected governor of Illinois and later as President of the United States after first becoming famous as a (wait for it) a porn star.
If you’re interested you can order the book on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Something-Air-John-Allen-Small/dp/1453852220/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1295135977&sr=1-11). If you’re not interested… well, just forget that I even mentioned it. But I do hope you might be at least a little bit interested, because it really is kind of a neat little story if I do say so myself…
End of plug.
In : Pop Culture