[28 February 2002]
“Get off my plane!” snarls President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) in Air Force One as he prepares to kick Russian terrorist Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) into oblivion after a fierce mid-air fight to retake the captured presidential plane. The bloodied and bedraggled President has, pretty much on his own, defeated the terrorists who commandeered the plane, saving his staff, along with his wife and teenage daughter who also happened to be on the plane. Loving father, perfect husband, Vietnam veteran, and he fights terrorists with fists and guns. But he’s not done! Not only can he fight, he can also get into the pilot’s seat and fly Air Force One while a daring plane-to-plane rescue saves those on board. There’s no doubt that we’d vote for him in a minute.
But maybe this is a bit too “macho” for some people. OK, there are other candidates in the Hollywood presidential leadership sweepstakes. How about Dave? Dave (Kevin Kline) is a very decent, very average, next door kind of guy. And, he just happens to be a dead ringer for the President. The real president, who is nasty and arrogant, is seriously ill following a stroke. The politically innocent Dave is dragooned into impersonating the real president, in order to hide the truth from the public. Some duplicitous staff members want Dave to unknowingly front for their power grabbing schemes. With Dave, however, innocence is bliss. He invites his accountant buddy (Charles Grodin) to lunch in the White House, and together they balance the Federal budget. The next day he takes the budget figures into a Cabinet meeting and, working only with a pencil and pad of paper to do the math, humbles the nefarious staff members; and, he shames the cabinet members into making cuts in their departments. This saves enough money to rescue a child care center that he had visited which, he had just found out, was about to be slashed from the budget. He saves the kids, gets the real First Lady (Sigourney Weaver), and returns to his normal life.
Too innocent? Then how about The American President‘s Andrew Shephard (Michael Douglass)? A widower, but like Harrison Ford’s President Marshall, he’s also a father who has s cute teenage daughter. He falls in love with lobbyist Sidney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). Their romance becomes entangled with the politics of an environmental bill and a crime control bill with its attendant controversy over gun control. In the film’s dramatic concluding speech, President Shephard condemns his opponents who have smeared his “girlfriend” and, throwing political expediency to the wind, he pledges to send to Congress a strong anti-assault weapon gun control bill. He will, he says, “get the guns,” and go door-to-door if he has to, in order to convince the public to support him. You just have to believe that he will do it!
If toughness, gentleness, or romance is still not enough for you, there is the most recent competitor for best Hollywood president, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender. He does not have a teenage daughter, but he’s tough, decent, and willing to take a chance by after the Vice President’s death nominating a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to fill the post. In his ending speech, he stirringly stakes all on the defense of his embattled nominee, who has been smeared with false charges of past sexual indiscretions. President Evans sends Senator Hanson’s most vociferous attacker, Senator Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), reeling from the Senate chamber in shame and humiliation. Poor Gary Oldman; his characters always seem to be on the receiving end of the righteous wrath of Hollywood’s presidents.
There is one more “President” to consider, President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) of television’s West Wing. Warm, wise and witty, with not a teenager but rather, (better?) three grown daughters, President Bartlett has captured the hearts and minds of American viewers. All of these “presidents” combine a wide array of characteristics which Americans yearn for in a president. For starters, an American president must be a “male”. Few seem yet to be eager for a female president. He should be tough, but also embody the friendly kind of person who might be a next door neighbor. He should have rugged good looks, and perhaps some pop star charisma so that he can wow the crowds when he’s out there making appearances and giving speeches “on tour”.
What Americans want is a “perfect” president. Americans want presidents with pizazz; presidents who can entertain. They almost got it in John Kennedy mingled with Hollywood’s Rat Pack; with the actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan, who straddled the Washington-Hollywood divide; and with Bill Clinton, who paled around with Hollywood entertainment bigwigs like Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen, living the life much like a troubled pop star as chronicled in the VH1 television show, Behind the Music.
We Americans used to, and still do to a certain extent, measure our presidents against Washington and Lincoln. In the past we honored those two presidents with national holidays on their respective February birthdays. (Though, as my wife who is from Virginia reminds me, her state definitely did not celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday.) Nevertheless, the recent evolution of this presidential holiday reflects our contradictory feelings about presidents. We still revere the Father of the Country and The Great Emancipator. Although Washington and Lincoln may have obtained grandeur through their legacy, they still seem to lack the dazzle today’s presidents need to have.
In 1978 the two birthdays were combined into one February Monday holiday. And it’s now hard to describe exactly who or what the day celebrates. Is it still to honor our two greatest presidents, Washington and Lincoln? Is the holiday now for all the presidents? During the weekend before this year’s Monday holiday, I heard a radio ad for Acme Supermarkets that suggested customers should sample their special bargains, in honor of “all 43 presidents!” And I’ve seen other ads on TV pushing sales for both “Presidents’ Day” and “President’s Day”. I wonder which president they mean.
Maybe the Springfield Elementary students on The Simpsons had it right when, in one episode they presented a Presidents’ Day assembly, portrayed the more obscure presidents, and danced and sang, “We are the lesser presidents”. Or, maybe the holiday is now, like Memorial Day and Martin Luther King’s Birthday, all about leisure time, winter skiing holidays, and special sales which give car salesmen the chance to appear on television wearing long beards and stove pipe hats.
We tend to select presidential memories from a rather mixed bag. The noble Washington, Honest Abe, Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill (rough and tumble Teddy Roosevelt may be the only president that I could actually imagine displaying the pugnacity of Harrison Ford’s President Marshall in Air Force One), John F. Kennedy staring down the Soviets over the missiles in Cuba or having a skimpily clad Marilyn Monroe sing “Happy Birthday” to him, Ronald Reagan’s tears at the D Day ceremony at Omaha Beach, his affability and toughness shining through. Even Bill Clinton, and his “I did not have sex with that woman!” Overall, American presidents dominate our political landscape like a reigning monarch. And this in a country that has always claimed to abhor kings.
Europeans, who know a bit about royalty, have often looked upon America’s presidential fixation with haughtiness, derision, and a certain amount of apprehension. The derision was apparent during Bill Clinton’s Monica scandal. “If a president can lead,” a Russian Professor asked me in 1998 in Moscow, “why should you care if he has a mistress?” The apprehension arises from the realization that an American president’s decisions may potentially effect the entire world. But as we Americans try to decide whether we want our presidents to be pop stars, entertainers, or Lincolnesque, something strange is happening in parts of Europe, both east and west: the “presidentialization” of leadership positions. Now everybody wants leaders with animal magnetism and cinematic glamour.
During Great Britain’s last election one could watch C-Span and catch clips of Prime Minister Tony Blair barnstorming around Britain, American presidential candidate-style, kissing babies, and extolling his new, “Cool Britannia”. In Britain the people don’t even vote for the Prime Minister; they vote for members of Parliament who choose the Prime Minister. In the summer of 2000 I was in eastern Europe to study Romania’s new democracy. Whether in the capitol city of Bucharest, or three hours north in the smaller city of Sibiu in Transylvania, it seemed that everyone was as we were back in the States for our presidential election ardently debating the merits of the candidates in Romania’s fall presidential election. A former Romanian student of mine, who was my research assistant and translator for the trip, told me that although she favored the current President Constantinescu, he was too staid; he was a boring, bearded, pipe smoking academic. He was not one to thrill a crowd. “He will,” she predicted, “loose to Mr. Illiescu, an old communist who has been president before-and he is much more exciting.” She was right. Constantinescu didn’t even run. His equally boring replacement lost to Mr. Illiescu.
For me, though, the most astounding “presidentialization” of European politics has occurred in Russia. I made my third trip there in June of 1996 to observe the Russian presidential election. Boris Yeltsin, who had become the Russian president with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, was running for re-election. He faced a field of several candidates. His main opponent was the young, but also a somewhat bland, old style communist, Gennady Zyuganov. The streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg plastered with campaign posters, and television broadcasts jammed with political commercials. I attended a huge Yeltsin political rally in Moscow’s Red Square. Balloons, bunting, and people carrying Yeltsin placards were everywhere; while incredibly loud rock music, performed by a group of young Russian rock stars on a nearby stage reverberated off of the Kremlin Walls and Lenin’s tomb. Red Square! Lenin’s Tomb! A full blown American-style political rally; in Moscow where the Communist Party dictators had ruled; in Russia, where possibly the most autocratic monarchs ever to reign over any empire, the Russian Czars, had exercised absolute dominance.
It is interesting to note that after almost a decade of the sometimes entertaining, sometimes bizarre antics of Boris Yeltsin, in the wake of his retirement from office in 1999, Russians elected the very staid former KGB (secret service) official Vladimir Putin. Russians seem to have tired of “American” politics. President Putin is definitely not a pop star; and, indeed, though he professes to be a democrat, he seems more in the mold of a stern Czar. So, as some Europeans become more enamored of the “Presidents” in America the place where the modern, pop star “President” was invented we’re at a loss to decide who a modern American president should be like: Lincoln or Reagan, Harrison Ford/James Marshall or Martin Sheen/Josiah Bartlett. All these doubts underlie a serious issue, the nature of our political leadership. This is an especially crucial matter at our current time of crisis.
For myself, though, I have always felt pretty certain in my view of the essence of presidential leadership. In the fall of 1966, when I was a freshman at Gettysburg College, I met former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. One evening during that year’s election campaign, students were invited to attend (although many of us were not Republicans), a post-Republican Party Dinner reception for Eisenhower. He was then retired and living on his farm near the town of Gettysburg.
As the reception wound down Ike made his way to the door, wading through the throng of well wishers. I plucked up my courage, stepped through the crowd, stuck out my hand and said “Mr. President, my father fought under you in World War II.” He stopped, leaned over, he was tall but seemed very tall to me, as he took my outstretched hand in his. He turned toward me with full wattage of his famous grin, as though we were alone in the crowded room. “That,” said Ike, “is something I never get tired of hearing. Give him my best. Thank him, and thank you.” And he was gone.
That moment was my brush with presidential greatness. It’s true I was young and awed by the moment. And it’s true that President Eisenhower was, as all presidents have been, human, “flawed” even, as we still debate about his view of the communist threat and his hesitant support of Civil Rights in the 1950s, among other aspects of his presidency. So there he was, not a pop star, not a Czar. Was he “great?” Maybe. Was he “perfect?” No. Was he a “leader?” I think so. But that is for me the essence of the American presidency.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/thompson020301/