In Honor Of Presidents Day: The 10 Best TV and Movie Presidents Of All Time

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In the beginning there were birthdays: Feb. 12 was Abraham Lincoln’s. Feb. 22 was George Washington. Now there is President’s Day which, sadly, serves not the memory of great leaders, but to promote car and furniture sales. And when it comes to Hollywood, there’s been a similar metamorphosis.

Prior to World War II, president’s were shown in respectful, deferential light. It was all about myth-building. Right from the first George Washington film (1909), these were men with a higher calling. Their personal lives were rarely discussed, and if they were, it was always through the filter of history. Spouses were either supporters (Martha Washington) or hinderances (Mary Todd Lincoln).

But after World War II things changed. Nothing highlights this better than the on-screen portrayal of fictional presidents. It seems Hollywood decided that American presidents were fair game for all sorts of roles. From action heroes to gun-toting ex-porn stars, nothing says presidential more than what a screenwriter’s imagination could conjure.

So let’s have a little fun and countdown the best/worst American Presidents in film and TV. It was tough to whittle down, but here they are:

10.) President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas)
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s romantic comedy-cum-political drama, Rob Reiner’s “The American President” (1995) has Michael Douglas as a widower Commander-In-Chief who starts courting an environmental lobbyist. The film gets to be a bit too much at the end, but the best parts are how everyday tasks become convoluted problems exasperated by his title. It also works best when Sorkin gets Douglas on the political soapbox.

9.) President Thomas J. Whitemore (Bill Pullman)
A wishy-washy president with a super cute daughter faces the toughest task of all time: an alien invasion. No, Donald, we’re not talking about Muslims or Mexicans. We’re talking about ETs in a big mother ship in 1996’s “Independence Day.” Pullman’s defining moment is the speech before the final battle, but who can forget Randy Quaid’s sacrificial role? Now that Quaid is a certified wacko, this could be his best performance.

8.) Bill Mitchell/Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline)
Ivan Reitman’s “Dave” (1993) is one of those films that ,whenever it is on TV, I stop and watch. The premise of a regular guy and his nebbish-y accountant setting Washington right has such a strong populist appeal. Just some good ‘ol American common sense will get those greedy, power mad-politicians on the right track. Besides, who doesn’t love Ving Rhames as Duane, the body guard?

7.) President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges)
“Can I get you a sandwich or something?” Jeff Bridges’ folksy, unassuming, but incredibly savvy president in “The Contender” (2000) saves this otherwise so-so story about mendacious politicians and their supporters. Bridges plays hardball like Teddy Roosevelt played world politics. He talks softly and carries a big stick. Great cast includes Gary Oldman at his oiliest, and Joan Allen at her annoyingly sincerest.

6.) President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell)
TV seems to have accepted the idea of a female president before the electorate has. In “Battlestar Galactica,” President Roslin assumes control after a Cylon attack. Her character is driven by circumstance, deteriorating health and increasing religious visions. This makes her one of the most complex portrayals of a president in either TV or film. Maybe she has paved the way for America to be ready for a real complex female president?

5.) President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen)
While the rest of the White House staff is dealing with pressing political problems or intensely private ones, President Bartlett swans in and out of Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing” like some beneficent and sagacious god figure. He’s always the smartest, he always knows exactly what to do, and when called for, he can put people in their place with a well-timed jab. He’s a liberal’s dream president. Sadly, he’s fictional.

4.) President James Marshall (Harrison Ford)
Nothing says modern presidency like a Commander-In-Chief who can kick butt and still be a loving father/husband. That’s what the president in “Air Force One,” directed by German Wolfgang Peterson, does. He negotiates a peace deal, sabotages an act of terrorism and saves his staff. Wow. Can you imagine him delivering the State of the Union speech? Or even better, wrestling with Congress? He’s the ultimate activist president.

3.) President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers)
Stanley Kubrick’s acerbic and brilliant “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) is classic. Seller’s role as the Adlai Stevenson clone is spot on. Just the name, Merkin Muffley, is great. It suggests a soft, cerebral, liberal who would overthink how to tie his shoes. The scene where Muffley is telling the Soviet Premier that the bomb is head his way is pure comic genius.

2.) President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews)
People talk about the dumbing down of America and Mike Judge’s 2006 Idiocracy” nails it. It is seemingly prophetic. President Camacho could easily be a candidate in today’s primaries. He’s a former porn star and a five-time wrestling champ who can deliver a can of whoop ass with the best of them. He speaks to the people, and when they don’t listen he grabs his assault rifle and starts firing. Voters eat that up!

1.) President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)
Just what Washington needs, an evil, Machiavellian president, and Frank Underwood fills those shoes quite nicely. With his Lady MacBeth (Robin Wright) in tow, they slither, connive, and smile unctuously for the cameras in the spellbinding Netflix series “House of Cards.” Perhaps that is what we want in our presidents. A Shakespearean villain who mesmerizes us as we wait, hopefully, for the tragedy to play out.

How about you? Do you have a favorite fictional president? Let us know. That’s what the comments section is all about!

— By Garen Daly

Garen Daly is the director of the up coming documentary on the legionary Orson Welles Complex.

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