So today in the United States, we’ll be inaugurating a new president. Or we’ll be living the funeral of Commissioner Loeb from The Dark Knight in real time. Possibly both. Anyway. Every four years we go through this dance, and every four years at least some of us wish some of the greatest fictional presidents in history were up on that dais.
Fictional presidents are great. The good ones, anyway. They mostly speak to the better angels of our being, and they nurture that warm, fuzzy idealism that lives deep within our souls that makes us ask, “Why can’t real presidents be like this?” The make-pretend presidents make it look so easy. And while we all know it isn’t that easy in real life, we all know it should be.
With that in mind, let’s get to our picks for the five greatest fictional presidents of all time. Some house-cleaning before we get started, this is not a list of great portrayals of real presidents. These are made-up presidents in made-up worlds, because the real world sucks, and for however long it takes me to write this, I do not wish to reside there. Also, this list is in no particular order except for that last one, because that’s my favorite one. So it’s in some semblance of a particular order.
Anyway, five greatest fictional presidents. And go.
President James Marshall, Air Force One
Harrison Ford as president? Yes, please.
Before Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were “Die Hard in the White House,” Air Force One was “Die Hard on – um – Air Force One.” Now, I questioned putting President Marshall on this list for one reason. For the most part, the whole dilemma is entirely his fault. But it’s that kind of “his fault” that we love in our greatest fictional presidents. Marshall is returning to Washington from an overseas summit where he made it abundantly clear that the United States will not negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances.
Which, naturally, influences terrorists to commandeer his mobile strategic operations center airplane.
But the movie that follows, and President Marshall’s one-man assault on the terrorists is just sheer bliss. Sheer, stupid bliss. I’ve got a soft spot for Air Force One because it was a rare bright spot for Ford during the late 90s. The guy had Han Solo’d and Indiana Jones’d himself as far as one iconic actor realistically can. His two Jack Ryan movies were pretty great, but this was our last glimpse of “kick-ass” Harrison Ford for a while. And as much as we’re all desperate for a simpler time with less explosions and less violence, there’s a part of our brain that clicks on during Air Force One.
That says, “Yeah, Mr. President, you kill them terrorists.” Although, if we’re being honest, “GET OFF MY PLANE!” was reason enough to list President Marshall among the greatest fictional presidents of all time. What’s that? Throw in a clip of it? I thought you’d never ask.
Take that, not-Hans Gruber. By the way, Gary Oldman’s just the best, and I’ve referenced two movies in this list where he either gets shot or thrown out of a plane. I’m sorry, Gary, you deserve better. But yeah, THROW HIM OUTTA THAT PLANE, MR. PRESISDENT! (ahem) Whew. I’m okay. I’m okay now.
President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, The West Wing
“Jason, if you love Jed Bartlet so much, why don’t you just marry him?” You know what, if he was real, I might. And also, I get the feeling he’d be all in favor of that, so you shut up, you.
I love The West Wing. The record is pretty clear on that. But what I love the most about it is just the sheer humanity that Martin Sheen injects into President Bartlet. It’s really what puts him on this list of greatest fictional presidents. In fact, in the episode “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen, Part 1,” Bartlet bestie and chief-of-staff Leo McGarry lays out everything you need to know about the show and everything you need to know about Bartlet in one sentence.
“They say a good man can’t be elected president. I do not believe that.”
And there you have it. Josiah Bartlet is a good man. He’s a good father, a good friend, a kindly boss, and a man who genuinely cares about anyone. Even (and in some cases especially) those who disagree with him, knowing full well it might be to his political peril. There are two instances in the series that I can think of where he verbally confirms this. Once in the aforementioned episode and again in season four’s “Game On,” wherein he debates his opponent for re-election. In the former, he tells someone in a town hall Q&A that if that person expects him not to fight for poor people, he should vote for someone else.
In “Game On,” Bartlet goes further, saying he’s the President of the United States, “not the president of the people who disagree with me. And if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.” Now, in real life that would have the pundits setting their hair on fire. In The West Wing, it cinches re-election for him, because the president just said on live TV that he cares about everybody.
President Jed Bartlet is the very concept unconditional love and compassion in the Oval Office made flesh. And that makes him one of the greatest fictional presidents ever.
President Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day
Fun fact. I had to dig through the movie to find out what the name of the president in Independence Day even was. And I’ll be honest, until that moment, I thought his name was “The president in Independence Day” and/or Bill Pullman. There’s a scene early where one of his aides is reading a newspaper aloud to him, and the article identifies him as “President Whitmore.” Then later, Robert Loggia calls him “Tom,” and I’m assuming that’s short for “Thomas” and not “Tomathy.” Remember The Office? Anyway.
You could pretty easily make an argument that Whitmore isn’t a great president. At the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that the guy is struggling politically. Congress isn’t impressed by a recent joint session, and that right away points to Whitmore not doing a great job. Or to there being an off-screen crisis that isn’t mentioned. Why are they having a joint session of Congress in July? Also, I don’t know when the election is going to be in the Independence Day universe, but Whitmore’s opponent has a pretty compelling argument against him. “President Whitmore’s administration saw a crapzilion Americans get incinerated by aliens Destroy All Humans style.” Anyway.
President Whitmore makes our list of great fictional presidents for two reasons. For one thing, the guy is a fighter pilot, and he leads an aerial assault against a giant city-killing alien spaceship. Like, holy crap. To put it in historical context, the last real president to command actual troops in actual battle was James Madison. And he got – as the kids say – his proverbial bottom handed to him on a proverbial silver platter.
The other thing that makes Whitmore one of the greatest fictional presidents is that speech. Oh my lanta, that speech. If you say you don’t know what speech that is, you’re lying because no one doesn’t know what speech. For those who just want to hear it again and why wouldn’t you, here’s this.
That guy with the really intense salute (you know which one, shut up) says it all. President Whitmore, you have our consent to govern and command-in-chief forever. If aliens really blew up all of our major cities, this is the battle cry we’d all answer. Assuming we either knew how to fly a plane and assuming that we weren’t cowardly lumps of terrified. We’re Electric Bento and we approve this message.
President Dwayne Elizando Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, Idiocracy
“We’re living in Idiocracy!” That’s something I’m sure you’ve said in the last fifteen years at some point or another.
Now I know it’s a satire. But President Camacho knows how to get things moving. He doesn’t have the first clue how to get things done, but he can get them moving. When he hears dissent in his State of the Union address, he fires warning shots from a machine gun in the air. Yeah, that’s sheer despotism. But in the context of that world, it makes sense. Also, he’s Terry Crews, and Terry Crews is awesome in all things. I will hear no dissent on this matter. If you need to know why I’m right, there’s this movie, and I’d also like to reference flame sax. Google it. Your honor, the state rests.
Anyway, those aren’t the things that make President Camacho one of the greatest fictional presidents of them all. The things that make him great is that one little spark of humility. In the future of Idiocracy, the planet is full of – well – idiots. Nobody knows how to do anything, no one knows how things work, and science has long been forgotten. Hey, wait. Anyway, in the middle of this, a guy named Joe (Luke Wilson) from the early 21st century is unthawed. And while he was an unremarkable guy in his own time, he is now the smartest man on the planet.
So President Camacho, knowing a good thing when he sees it, appoints Joe to solve all the world’s problems. And while most of Joe’s solutions are just common sense that any third-grader can see, the fact stands that President Camacho recognized there are problems that even a man who has “Mountain Dew” as one of his middle names cannot solve. Good guy Camacho, knows when to look out for us.
Dave Kovic (Posing As President Bill Mitchell), Dave
Dave is the story of Kevin Kline playing a dude disguised as another dude. Take that, RDJ. Not such a trailblazer now, are you? What was I talking about? Oh, right, greatest fictional presidents.
Anyway, for those who haven’t seen it, Dave is the light-hearted story of the evil White House Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) attempting a literal coup by hiring someone to impersonate the incapacitated president with the ultimate goal of making himself president. Hey, remember the good old days when we thought that’s how a coup would happen? In smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors, Machiavellian maneuvering? Idiots, we were. Complete idiots. Kevin Kline plays Dave Kovic, an affable fellow with a good heart that runs a temp agency. He finds jobs for struggling people, even if they aren’t remotely qualified, just so their heat doesn’t get shut off.
Yes, please, now, make this fictional man president.
It’s a beautiful look at how we all wish things would be if a regular Joe became President of the United States. There’s a wonderful montage of Dave doing all the “isn’t that nice” things we like to see presidents do. He throws out the first pitch of a ball game, he visits factory workers, and he plays with his dogs on the White House lawn. Later, he and the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) visit a homeless shelter, and Dave brightens a lonely kid’s day with a magic trick. Then the wheels fall off, as Dave realizes what a crap person the real president is. The real president wanted to veto funding for homeless shelters across the country, which the evil Chief of Staff does in the president’s name.
Not-President Dave calls his accountant buddy (Charles Grodin) to the White House, risks all kinds of national security issues by letting him on the gag, and they rebalance the 15,000-page federal budget over bratwurst and potato chips. It’s the absolute epitome of “Why can’t it be this simple?”
Then Dave makes itself a true example, by having this greatest fictional president, who’s a fictional president even in the movie, do the right thing. The real president’s crimes catch up with him, and Dave stages a mini-coup of his own, setting things right by making Vice President Nance, who’s every bit the good man Dave is and better, the new president.
Going back to President Bartlet, they say a good person can’t get elected president. Maybe not. But if he could, I think we’d all like to image he or she would be like Dave. Truly the greatest fictional president of all time.
Featured image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.