Want a straight-shooter write-in candidate? How about Jefferson Smith?
Posted November 3
In an election year as divisive as this one, it’s difficult not to think about some of those idealized politicians in movies and TV shows that seem to be honest, upright and thoughtful.
Where are they when we need them?
Well, they’re up there on the big (and smaller) screens, of course. (There are also many negative, even evil, portrayals of presidents on TV and in movies, but we’re going to ignore those for the purposes of this discussion.)
These presidents don’t let political agendas dictate their actions, they are trustworthy and dependable and each has a moral base that helps him stay on track.
Sadly, they are also fictional. And making any of them a write-in candidate on the ballot is as fruitless as voting for Snoopy.
Come to think of it, Snoopy wouldn’t be a bad choice this year.
Anyway, on television there’s President Conrad Dalton (played by Keith Carradine) in the CBS series “Madam Secretary,” which is in its third season. As the title suggests, the show’s central figure is Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) but Dalton is a regular, a character of sturdy stuff with a military background, who listens to his advisers and tries to do the right thing.
Another current TV president is on ABC’s new show “Designated Survivor.” After HUD Secretary Thomas Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is chosen to be the Cabinet member lodged in a safe place as the president delivers the State of the Union address, the unthinkable happens: An explosion takes out the president, the rest of the Cabinet and most of Congress, thrusting Kirkman into the Oval Office. A mild-mannered fellow, he doesn’t want the job, but of course, as the series progresses, he’s stepping up to fulfill his duties with all the integrity he can muster (although the series seems to be headed into “Seven Days in May” territory).
One of the great and too-good-to-be-true TV presidents was Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on “The West Wing,” which ran on NBC from 1999-2006, and which is currently streaming on Netflix. The show, written by Aaron Sorkin, had such an extreme liberal bent that some wags called it “The Left Wing.” In fact, all three of these shows lean left, and conservatives sometimes (but not always) come off as villains. It’s significant, however, that several “West Wing” plots show President Bartlet reaching out across party lines (as does his equally liberal successor late in the series).
Crossing party lines? That’s another way to tell it’s fiction.
In terms of the big screen, there are too many for a comprehensive list, so I’ll admit up front that these are simply my favorite movie presidents, and to be honest, it’s probably as much for the actors as the characters. (All of these films are available on Blu-ray, DVD and/or various streaming sites).
“Air Force One” (1997, R for violence) Want a leader of the free world that takes no guff? President James Marshall, as embodied by Harrison Ford, is as tough as they come, which he proves when a terrorist (Gary Oldman) hijacks his plane. (And Glenn Close also seems quite capable as his vice president.)
“Independence Day” (1996, PG-13 for sci-fi destruction and violence) Like Harrison Ford, Bill Pullman gets tough as the president of this one. Thomas J. Whitmore has to take on terrorists, too, but this time they’re from outer space. And Whitmore offers a rousing and memorable Fourth of July speech just before leading the battle to take down the invaders.
“Deep Impact” (1998, PG-13 for intense disaster related elements and brief language) Morgan Freeman plays President Tom Beck, who maintains his cool while trying to protect the planet from mass extinction when a comet heads for Earth, and he delivers a stirring speech at the film’s conclusion that’s just as rousing as the one in “Independence Day” — maybe more so (no offense to Pullman, but, hey, it’s Morgan Freeman).
“The American President” (1995, PG-13 for some strong language) Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd is another liberal president written by Aaron Sorkin (a sort of dry run for “The West Wing”). And although he needs a nudge at the end of the film to get there, President Shepherd ultimately lets his principles trump political expediency.
“Dave” (1993, PG-13 for momentary language and a sexual situation) Kevin Kline is great as down-to-earth everyman Dave Kovic in this comedy-drama, plucked out of obscurity to become a presidential impersonator and then forced to keep up the charade for longer than anyone expects or wants — especially him. (Ben Kingsley, as the vice president who ultimately ascends to the Oval Office, is also a man of decency.)
“Seven Days in May” (1964, b/w, not rated) President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is painted as perhaps too pacifistic at the beginning of this political thriller as he signs a nuclear disarmament treaty that doesn’t sit well with the constituency or much of his own Cabinet. But by the end of the film he has managed to prevent a coup d'état by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he does it without bending or compromising the integrity of the Constitution or the office of the president.
“Fail-Safe” (1964, b/w, not rated, some violence) Henry Fonda is the perfect choice to play a stoic president faced with an inconceivable decision after a computer error sends a nuclear bomber group to attack Moscow. Fonda’s unnamed president uses his wits and comes close to stopping a nuclear holocaust before, in the end, he makes the hard decision to take action that will ultimately please no one. (Perhaps Fonda’s performance was informed by his role as “Young Mr. Lincoln” in 1939.)
Those are all elected presidents on film, but my favorite movie politician is actually Jefferson Smith, James Stewart’s Oscar-nominated character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939, b/w, not rated, smoking, drunkenness and some violence), an inexperienced but smart and straight-arrow junior senator chosen by crooked politicians because his unfettered wholesomeness will appeal to the voters and his naïveté will make him malleable. But he’s less pliable than they think, even after they frame him in a scandal, and in the end Smith wins out, standing up for what he believes.
At the conclusion, Smith’s political future is uncertain, but I like to think he kept going, so he’s my write-in candidate: Jefferson Smith for president!
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at email@example.com.