Has there ever been a TV president so universally beloved? With his charisma, his take-charge attitude, his resolve in the face of outlandish terror attacks, and his commanding bass voice, Haysbert’s President Palmer inspires loyalty among virtually everyone who’s ever worked for him and among viewers of all political stripes. (He’s a far cry from successor Charles Logan, whose seemingly craven, feckless conduct turned out to mask a sinister agenda.) About the only character flaw Palmer has is a poor choice of associates, such as his Lady Macbeth-ish wife, Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald), and colleagues like Logan (Gregory Itzin), whose wag-the-dog conspiracy got Palmer killed in the opening minutes of 24‘s fifth season.
Image credit: Everett Collection
Andrew Shepherd, The American President
”The American President”
Favorite fictional presidents: Andrew Shepherd
PLAYED BY Michael Douglas, in The American President
Andrew Shepherd isn’t just a White House widower; he’s also the world’s most eligible bachelor. In the 1995 movie, Michael Douglas gets romantic-comic mileage out of the difficulties the most powerful man on the planet has in his courtship of a lovely lobbyist (Annette Bening), like having to interrupt a date in order to bomb Libya, or trying to cuddle in privacy at Camp David while surrounded by Secret Service agents and paparazzi. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s movie plays like a dry run for his series The West Wing, whose President Bartlet (played by American President‘s chief of staff, Martin Sheen) is pretty much Andrew Shepherd without the libidinal baggage.
President Bartlet was a liberal’s dream chief executive: resolute, popular, and always the smartest guy in the room. (Really, who’s the last real-life president who could speak Latin?) Also, forthright and honest (well, except for that whole not telling voters he has multiple sclerosis thing). Plus, he was played by the Camelot-esque Martin Sheen, an actor who once seemed destined to portray every member of the Kennedy family except Eunice. Alas, Bartlet eventually became a lame duck, overshadowed in the final season by the election that put his successor, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), in the White House. But it was fitting that the show was drawing to a close by then; it’s hard to imagine the loyal Bartlet staffers serving at the pleasure of another president.
Image credit: Primary Colors: Kobal Collection
Jack Stanton, Primary Colors
Favorite fictional presidents: Jack Stanton
PLAYED BY John Travolta, in Primary Colors
Sure, his name is Stanton, not Clinton, but John Travolta’s performance is about as close to a definitive screen portrayal of the 42nd president as we’re ever likely to get. Travolta gets all the Clintonesque gestures and voice inflections just right, but he also gets the contradictions in his character. His Stanton is a Southern governor with strong charisma and populist empathy, as well as weaknesses for fried foods and women. He’s a fascinatingly flawed man whose campaign poses the question of whether a leader’s personal character should matter more than his political ideals. The 1998 film had the unfortunate timing to pose that query as the Lewinsky scandal unfolded offscreen, but it’s a question that, like the movie, deserves another look.
Image credit: Air Force One: Everett Collection
James Marshall, Air Force One
”Air Force One”
Favorite fictional presidents: James Marshall
PLAYED BY Harrison Ford, in Air Force One
Leave it to Harrison Ford to give us a president who’s a two-fisted action hero. In this 1997 thriller, his James Marshall is a president with a military background, one that’s apparently given him intimate knowledge of the workings of a jet airliner. He’s also a persuasive speaker, whether he’s making a televised speech condemning terrorism or personally telling a hijacker (Gary Oldman, pictured) to ”get off my plane.” Of course, as in many of his movies, Ford is protecting not just the country but also his family. Who wouldn’t vote for a President Ford — er, Marshall — a protective daddy who promises to keep us safe from international bogeymen?
Image credit: Doctor Strangelove: Kobal Collection
Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove
Favorite fictional presidents: Merkin Muffley
PLAYED BY Peter Sellers, in Dr. Strangelove
As suggested by his emasculated name, President Muffley (right) is a meek and dovish fellow, precisely the wrong person to be in charge during a nuclear war. His bald pate and effete manner suggest egghead liberal presidential aspirant Adlai Stevenson, though Stanley Kubrick’s satire is equally contemptuous of the hawkish faction represented by George C. Scott’s General Turgidson (left). Sellers’ brilliant performance in the 1964 film encompasses three roles, including British captain Mandrake and the Kissingeresque title character, but it’s his Muffley who gets to be the hilariously irony-impaired straight man: ”Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
Image credit: Battlestar Galactica: Carole Segal
Laura Roslin, Battlestar Galactica
Favorite fictional presidents: Laura Roslin
PLAYED BY Mary McDonnell, on Battlestar Galactica
Laura Roslin (center) has the presidency thrust upon her by tragedy — in this case, the near extinction of humanity at the hands of the Cylons. (McDonnell played the First Lady in Independence Day, so she knows all about how a chief executive should deal with an apocalyptic alien invasion.) Unlike most fictional presidents (but like some real ones), she believes she has a gift of prophecy and leads her citizens with a messianic fervor that rubs some people the wrong way. She’s also the first fictional president who’s ever had to deal with breast cancer — and the first whose breast cancer was cured by a transfusion from a hybrid-Cylon embryo she had ordered aborted.
Image credit: Dave: Kobal Collection
Bill Mitchell/Dave Kovic, Dave
Bill Mitchell/Dave Kovic
Favorite fictional presidents: Bill Mitchell/Dave Kovic
PLAYED BY Kevin Kline, in Dave
Testing the theory that anybody can be president, the Capra-ish 1993 comedy finds mild-mannered presidential double Dave Kovic stepping in for Bill Mitchell when the chief executive suffers a stroke while cheating on his First Lady. Suddenly, the stiff, patrician, heartless president is a sentimental, baby-hugging, compassionate advocate for homeless shelters and job creation programs. But in a nice twist, the only people in America who notice the switch are the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) and conspiracy-theorist-in-chief Oliver Stone. Just think how hard Dave‘s plot would have been to pull off if director Ivan Reitman had gone with his first choice for the role: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Image credit: The Contender: Everett Collection
Jackson Evans, The Contender
Favorite fictional presidents: Jackson Evans
PLAYED BY Jeff Bridges, in The Contender
In the 2000 movie, Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, left) seeks to become the first female vice president, but the film is stolen by its wily president, Jeff Bridges’ sly Jackson Evans. He’s a salty, Lyndon Johnson-esque figure who enjoys bowling in the White House basement and making backroom deals to advance his liberal agenda — which includes getting the sex-scandal-tainted Laine confirmed by a conservative-dominated Congress. He also has a novel hobby: trying to stump the White House chef with orders for arcane and esoteric dishes. This actually comes in handy, as when he intimidates freshman congressman Christian Slater by ordering up a shark-steak sandwich. Like Evans, Contender writer-director Rod Lurie was clearly eager to get a woman into the White House, finally succeeding with his ABC series Commander-in-Chief.
Image credit: Mars Attacks!: Kobal Collection
James Dale, Mars Attacks!
Favorite fictional presidents: James Dale
PLAYED BY Jack Nicholson, in Mars Attacks!
Jack Nicholson’s aloof President Dale may not be the most effective commander-in-chief, but in this 1996 Tim Burton flick, he proves to be one of the funniest. In his defense, how was he supposed to know that the Martians would attack? Or that they could be killed by the audio frequencies found only in the falsetto yodeling of Slim Whitman recordings? Give Dale credit also for his ability to put a positive spin on disaster. After the Martians destroy Congress, he announces, ”I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.”