That’s Not Really How It Works!: Civics And The Fictional Presidency

We all know the story about the timing of the issue that featured this panel, right?
We all know the story about the timing of the issue that featured this panel, right?

I greatly enjoy DC Comics’ Showcase Presents series of black and white reprints.  Sometimes they feature obscure characters, or just stories that would be far too expensive to hunt down the original comics in order to read, and at the price of below $15 each, the 500+ pages are generally worth it.  Besides, sometimes there’s some outright screwiness going on.  Take the original appearance of longtime foe of the Aton the Floronic Man, Jason Woodroe.  At the end of the issue, there’s a quick courtroom scene where a judge states that he is going to be handling certain procedures before Woodroe can be hauled off to a federal court for the crime of attempting to take over the world.

This tickles me for the very implications of what that panel suggests, namely that in that universe, the United States Congress proposed, debated, voted on, and passed a bill outlawing attempted world conquest.  Said law was then signed by a president.  I am sure for the juvenile readers of the original stories, this doesn’t seem too wild, but really, that’s the sort of thing that really catches my attention.

That said, let’s look at some fictional presidents.

In the real world, the American president is a very powerful man, but his powers are also limited by a number of factors.  He (and to date it has always been a he) is usually a middle-aged or older man, and he may be good for making speeches, but is probably not overly flashy in other ways.  He might even be downright boring.  Boring isn’t a bad thing in the real world.  Boring makes for bad times in fiction.  Unless the president is a minor, or even unseen, presence in a movie he needs to be compelling in order to hold an audience.

That in an of itself can be something.  A president who is actually important to the narrative has to have something going on.  Sometimes a real president can be used, though not without controversy.  The 1997 movie Contact took some clips of then-president Bill Clinton and used comments made out of context to sound as if he were commenting on actions that were occurring within the movie.  This caused some people problems, but I think I wrote about this sort of thing when I discussed the whole Lincoln/American Sniper issue a couple weeks ago, so I’m not going to say anything more about that at this time.

And then you can get into the downright ridiculous.

If you prefer something a little more NSFW with some language inappropriate to use around people who aren’t Watson, try checking YouTube for a trailer for something called FDR:  American Badass.  And yes, that is a thing.

Watson has maybe seen that movie.
Watson has maybe seen that movie.

But what if you aren’t using a president that really existed?  Sure, maybe Superman can trust JFK with his secret identity, but that may not always be an option.  What kind of presidents can we see?

Some of these guys put the "chief" in "chief executive".
Some of these guys put the “chief” in “chief executive”.

1.  President Badass

President Badass is the guy who kicks butt and takes names, whether he had a military background or not.  Usually he does.  Maybe Russian terrorist Gary Oldman has taken over the president’s personal aircraft.  You know the plane’s name, since it’s Air Force One.  It’s a good thing the people had the foresight to elect grumpy old man Indiana Jones president!  After Han Soloing his way to a Medal of Honor, evicting a couple Ruskies from the cargo hold shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

But why shouldn’t the president be just as good behind the stick as he is riding business class?  Maybe the president had some great piloting skills before ascending to the top job, and so when aliens attack, rally ’round the prez, boys, for there’s a new reason to celebrate Independence Day.  Reportedly, the Secret Service had a really tough time protecting the boss that time around, but he did give a really rousing speech.

Or maybe he’s just some quiet dude played by Jamie Foxx that learns to be real tough real fast.  I am sure he won’t let the White House Down.

These title puns suck.  I’m not doing any more.

2.  President Perfect

There’s not much wrong with this guy.  He gets stuff done, inspires the masses, and so forth.  He may even be the rightfully elected man, or a coincidentally identical stranger played by Kevin Kline in Dave.

This is the president who maybe is half of a couple in a rom com.  Or maybe he’s just really inspirational.  Most likely, he’s the guy on The West Wing doing a fast walk-and-talk.

Can't you just hear the angels sing?
Can’t you just hear the angels sing?

3.  President Corrupt

In the year 2000, DC took a chance with its superhero line by making Lex Luthor the president of the United States.  While many Americans suspect the president they didn’t vote for may be an evil supervillain, Superman actually knew that for certain.  As president, one of Luthor’s first acts was to hit his ex-wife, the Contessa, with a cruise missile.  Since she was another supervillain, I guess that’s OK, or just an extreme way to get out of paying alimony.

He may be a guy who did it all for the power and nothing else like the Smiler in the Vertigo series Transmetropolitan.  This sort of president is occasionally arrested or punished.  Sometimes he isn’t.

Sometimes its Nixon exploiting a technicality in the Constitution to get re-elected in the far future.  I hate when that happens.
Sometimes its Nixon exploiting a technicality in the Constitution to get re-elected in the far future. I hate when that happens.

4.  President Helpless

Maybe the president is no more able to stop whatever’s going on that anyone else.  In the second X-Men movie, after Magneto re-arranges the way the other Cerebro is set up in order for Professor X to kill all the humans, something Bender would approve of, the one normal human we see passed out on the ground is the president.  This is probably because he was the only guy in the movie who wasn’t a mutant, a villain, Iceman’s family, or a background character played by an extra.

Other times the president kinda sucks in various ways that show how helpless he is.  My wife enjoys the hell out of Scandal, and President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III has apparently more or less declared war on fictional West Angola (or East Angola, if it matters, neither country really exists) when his mistress, former advisor, and love of his life (sucks to be his wife on that show) is kidnapped by people whose ransom demand is he…start a war on East Angola (or West Angola, if it matters).  And, of course, the guy apparently is going to do it.  He really sucks.  President Fitz, named after a president known to be an adulterer that apparently knew Superman was Clark Kent, another president who fathered children by one of his slaves, and a third president who won a Civil War but also made really bad choices for advisors, may be one of the most aptly named fictional presidents ever.

But even he has nothing over President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove.  At least Fitz could probably prevent a nuclear war, or Olivia Pope would tell him how to do it.

5.  President Screwball

The president is just a big goofball.  Best used in broad comedies, maybe the best one is President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

6.  President Missing

Remember the role played by the president in the original Michael Bay Transformers?  Yeah, he was a cowboy hat poking over the top of a bed’s headboard.  Maybe you mean the president in the TV series Homeland, who apparently let’s his vice president decide when and where to hit with a drone strike.  It doesn’t matter who the president is because someone else who works for or with the guy will be doing all the things he supposed to be doing.

7.  Special Mention:  Too Many Presidents!

In the real world, the United States elects a president every four years.  In the world of 24, they go through presidents like the election is every six months or so.  Jack Bauer must have aged something like thirty some years during the course of that show.  How many presidents has he served under?

The bottom line is the presidency is used as a character basis like any other.  There are tropes and needed requirements that the president character must fulfill.  Usually its no big deal.  Once in a while there may be a problem.  The image at the top of this article reflects a story in which, to keep his other identity a secret, Superman gets President Kennedy to appear as Clark Kent on national television.  The story was done months in advance but actually hit shelves just after the real Kennedy had been assassinated.  It was an unfortunate coincidence.  I am sure that comics publishers have learned a lesson on letting their fictional characters encounter real presidents for trivial storylines.

Never mind.
Never mind.

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