All Politics Aside: The White House Is a Perfect Setting for a Television Drama, but Today's TV Presidents Prefer to Stay above the Political Fray

By Collum, Danny Duncan | U.S. Catholic, August 2015 | Go to article overview

All Politics Aside: The White House Is a Perfect Setting for a Television Drama, but Today's TV Presidents Prefer to Stay above the Political Fray


Collum, Danny Duncan, U.S. Catholic


In his 1988 Harper's magazine essay, "The Reason for Stories," novelist Robert Stone argued that fiction does for the collective unconscious of a culture what dreams do for our individual psyches. "The brain can't function without clearing its circuits during sleep," Stone wrote, "nor can we contemplate and analyze our situation without living some of the time in the world of the imagination, sorting and refining the random promiscuity of events."

So what does it say about our own promiscuous times that, during the past TV season, there were five shows running concurrently that featured the President of the United States (aka POTUS) as a central fictional character? In case you missed one in the shuffle, TV presidents have been on Veep (HBO), Scandal (ABC), Madam Secretary (CBS), House of Cards (Netflix), and State of Affairs (NBC). State of Affairs has been cancelled, but the other four will be back for the campaign circus of 2016.

The last time there was anything like this was during George W. Bush's second term, when our collective dream life was simultaneously ruled by Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) of The West Wing, David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) of 24, and Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) on Commander in Chief. Anticipating Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign flame-out, Commander in Chief was canceled after one season. Bartlet and Palmer, however, projected presidential personae that signified in important ways.

Running from 1999 to 2006, The West Wing came to represent a sort of liberal Democrat wish fulfillment. Bartlet was equal parts Bill Clinton without the impulse-control problems and Jimmy Carter with broader experience and a better staff. As America's real-life invasion of Iraq turned disastrous, our dream leader, Bartlet, often got tough with the terrorists, but always brought our boys home by the end of the episode.

Palmer, also a Democrat, and an African American at that, could be read as providing bipartisan cover for the Cheney-esque torture tactics on 24. But the show's depiction of his calm, decisive leadership could also be seen as providing a prototype for our first real-life black president. You know, the one who ordered the successful hit on Bin Laden.

This year's fictional presidents range from buffoon (Veep) or puppet (Scandal) to murderous sociopath (House of Cards). If there is a theme here, it is that these presidents, far from riding on the back of history, are instead driven by forces beyond their control.

This is most obviously true of Scandal's Republican President Fitzgerald Grant, who turns both his career and his heart over to his PR guru and secret love interest Olivia Pope. As the series has developed, viewers have learned that the real power is wielded by Pope's father, who heads an out-of-control covert action unit called B613.

Frank Underwood, on House of Cards, is his own B613. …

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