Can our real-life President live up to the ones we see on film and television?
The character of a president matters. And in this past year since Donald Trump was elected, many of us wished for a president who displays more character, humanity and self control. We want our president to be someone who we look up to and who is the moral leader of our country and who reflects the best of our American values. Donald Trump has fallen far short.
As an electorate we might be more excited this year if Jeb Bartlet, Andrew Shepherd or Dave Kovic had been elected president. Who are they?
They are three of the most popular Presidents of all time. At least that’s what critics and the public thought. They are Presidents from popular films and television, “The West Wing”, “The American President” and “Dave”. They are Presidents that we loved and admired for their humanity from the moment we met them. Unfortunately, they were all on screen and not in the Oval Office.
Why do we love these TV and film Presidents? It’s because they display a humility and basic connection to the human experience that our politicians do not.
In “Dave” an ordinary man with the desire to help his fellow man suddenly finds himself in the oval office, impersonating the President after the real President dies while having sex with a staffer. It is the “ordinary man” quality that endears us to Dave Kovic as he tries to fill the President’s shoes. He steps into the presidency with no agenda other than to try and do his civic duty, but when he discovers he’s being used by dark political forces, he does what his heart tells him to do and strives for policies that benefit ordinary people like himself. We love this President because he is literally one of us. We root for him because he is the Everyman. “Dave” is a modern day fairytale for sure, but we love it because it fulfills our wish for what we want in a President. For him to be us.
In “The American President” President Andrew Shepherd is a widowed President who falls in love again and starts dating during an election year. This President goes after the person he loves despite all odds and at great political sacrifice. In doing so, he rediscovers his passion for why he wanted to be President. It’s love that guides him to do the right thing over political expediency. We hope always that our Presidents act in the best interest of the people and not politics, but that isn’t always the case. In this film, this President does and we cheer him for it. We also see a President awkwardly asking out a woman and dealing with issues of sex, dating and being a single father. These are relatable issues. In this film, the President is humanized, shown a man first and a President second.
Finally, Jeb Bartlett in “The West Wing” embodies the frailties and flaws of a human being as he navigates his presidency. He loses his temper often. He is loyal to a fault. We see him attend sessions with a psychiatrist. He hides his MS from the American people. This is a President who is humanly flawed on many levels and we care about him, because he carries on and does so out of a noble ideal about public service. But what humanizes him the most is what is broken about him. We all feel broken in many ways and want our leaders, our President to show us that they are not automatons, but flawed, breakable human beings… like us.
These three Presidents were created by filmmakers who could shape their characters to be who they wanted them to be, but for the most part the writers and directors who gave birth to these Presidents really shaped them to be who we wanted them to be. They gave us Presidents that rose to our expectations for humanity, Presidents with a moral compass, Presidents we would want to see in the Oval Office. But where does that leave us in the real world? Where does that leave us with November 8th?
I think that into today’s world with a 24-hour news cycle, cameras recording every moment and internet scrutiny of every aspect of a President from physical appearance, to stumbles in words and on carpets, it’s hard for a President to live up to expectations. Look how well President Obama hid being smoker, only lighting up his cigarettes out of camera view.
How would great Presidents of the past fair in today’s world? Would JFK with his many affairs and prescription drug addictions survive the media scrutiny? FDR served as President from a wheel chair and lead us through World War Two with most of America not knowing he was disabled. They only heard his voice on the radio or saw photos in which he was standing. This only reinforces how much more we know about our Presidents today. Every aspect of their life is scrutinized.
So I ask the question… Are our candidates today really worse human beings than Presidents of the past, or do we just know much more about them and therefore see all their flaws? If that’s the case, then why do we love our movie Presidents for their flaws and dislike our current President for his? I think the answer is quite simple. One is a movie and one is real life. And in the movie, the writer can craft redemption and character growth, something that Donald Trump will likely never achieve. We should hold our Presidential candidates to a much higher standard and we should hope to find candidates that aspire to the ideal we admire in our movie Presidents.
I hope our next President rises to the level of humanity, basic decency and noble purpose that we see in our movie Presidents. We should expect it. We should seek it and we should never set the bar lower to accommodate someone not willing to be the leader we require.
Real life needs heroes and role models too.