Hollywood’s Fictional Presidents & the Challenges of a Polarized Audience
From the Editors | Prime Time for an Independent President… | Issue 7 | July 15, 2021
A polarized nation presents huge challenges for Hollywood creators seeking a large audience for shows featuring a US President and political content:
- Make POTUS too virtuously blue, as The West Wing did back in the early 2000s, and you’re bound to lose all shades of red viewership pre-launch in today’s climate.
- Make POTUS too raging red, especially in the wake of the Trump presidency, and you alienate blue and purple viewership while raising the national blood pressure in the process.
Time then for an independent President?
In Hollywood, at least, that time has come a few different ways, which warrants further discussion. In a series of upcoming episodes, TPP will speak with several notable Hollywood creators about their conception and casting of indie Presidents.
Writer, director and showrunner Rod Lurie was the first to create a network TV series around an Indie POTUS. His 2005 series cast Geena Davis as both the first female and first independent U.S. President in the short lived but memorable Commander-in-Chief (ABC). Lurie makes plain in his TPP interview that he tried to present issues in a non-partisan light, allowing viewers to watch President Mackenzie Allen face challenges in a different manner. How would an independent female leader deal with a macho Russian counterpart or formulate a proportional response to narco terrorism?
Unfortunately, Lurie was removed from the showrunner position after 7 episodes, with the show taking a predictable left turn soon after and lasting only 18 episodes in all.
With Designated Survivor, David Guggenheim also tried to transcend partisan viewership through a less partisan indie President, the character of Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Of both British and Canadian background, Sutherland was keen to play up the independence of Kirkman, who ascended to the Oval Office from a low level cabinet position after an attack on the U.S. Capitol. The main plot of the show becomes the gradual uncovering of an extreme right wing conspiracy behind the attack. In our TPP interview, Guggenheim describes the odd dejá vu he experienced during the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, as friends and colleagues reached out to him about similarities to Designated Survivor episodes.
Veep, the much loved and richly decorated political satire, took a more ambiguous tack in trying to reach a wide viewing audience. In an upcoming TPP episode, we speak to showrunner and comic writer extraordinaire David Mandel on this point. First as Veep, then briefly as POTUS, and even as a candidate for POTUS, Selina Meyer’s party affiliation is never explicitly mentioned. Nor are the terms Democrat and Republican uttered in seven seasons of Veep, replaced instead by “the other party,” “those guys,” but usually much worse. This ambiguity, we learn from Mandel, was by careful design and deemed the best method to effectively satirize power and money-driven political culture rather than actual parties.
Hollywood often runs ahead of history in depicting Presidents. James Earl Jones, for example, played a black President as early as 1972, 36 years before Obama’s election. TPP guest Rod Lurie depicted the first Jewish American POTUS in his 1999 film Deterrence and a first female nominee for the Presidency in The Contender (2000), five years before his Commander in Chief series. And, thankfully, more than a few Hollywood Presidents have dealt with issues not even on the horizon, such as the alien invasion of Independence Day or the asteroid of Deep Impact.
But it does seem a small matter of time before we see real world elections of female, Jewish and/or Hispanic Presidents, just a few of the norm-expanding characters envisioned by Hollywood. Can we also expect an independent President in our lifetime?
Here La La Land also seems engaged in ratings-driven creativity so long as the electoral college is in place. But TPP subscribers can revisit Kiefer Sutherland berating a partisan congress in Designated Survivor or candidate Jonah’s “War on Math” from Veep. In the process, we can indulge the plotline, however far-fetched, of political agendas rooted less in partisanship or candidates unafflicted with the viral political disease David Mandel calls “malignant narcissism and what not.”
Fictional U.S. Presidents in Film & TV
(A Notable Few Of The More Than 300)
Highlights & Insights from The Purple Principle
In our unique system, the U.S. does not have shadow governments with leaders-in-waiting as do parliamentary systems such as the UK. But we do have Hollywood. And historically La La Land has its own rationale for creating, casting, and projecting Presidents onto screens large and small. Sometimes, Hollywood operates well ahead of real world Washington (The Candidate;; ); sometimes a bit ahead or behind (Being There & Wag the Dog); and sometimes in an alternate universe (Independence Day)
This issue of the Purple Principle in Print reviews some of the more notable Hollywood POTUSes of recent decades, while looking ahead to TPP interviews with a few of Hollywood’s most creative POTUS-makers in recent time:
Listen To Our Hollywood Presidents Mini Series
What We’re Reading
Bracket of the Day: Best Fictional President
This cultural fantasy bracket from The Atlantic pits movie and TV POTUS icons against one another.
When Our (Fictional) Presidents Are Tested By Their Moments
Joshua Rothkopf takes a look at how fictional presidents have responded to crises.
Who Can Be President? According to the Movies, It’s Still White Men
This article analyzes the race and gender of various fictional movie presidents.
America Votes For the Best Fictional President
A fun poll about each of our 50 states’ favorite fictional presidents.
Poll Worth Pondering
Gallup has tracked presidential approval dating back to Harry S. Truman.
Study Worth Studying
From Fiction to Reality: Presidential framing in the Ukrainian comedy Servant of the People
In a recently published article, scholars assess how the framing of a fictional president in comedy helped that very actor ascend to the presidency of Ukraine.
Partner in Purple
The Miller Center is a nonpartisan research institute at the University of Virginia specializing in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history. Their website hosts a well-curated collection of presidential oral histories, archives of the White House tape recordings of JFK, LBJ, and Nixon, as well as well-researched exhibits on some of the twentieth century’s most pressing crises.