David Rothkopf

Obama’s heritage

What was most striking about Barack Obama’s solid performance at the White House correspondents dinner was his bond with the audience. His jokes were pretty much par for the course, leaving you with the impression that Obama was an affable guy with a good sense of humor who didn’t mind reading jokes that his staff ...

President Barack Obama gestures toward an audience member as he speaks at the annual White House Correspondents' Association gala dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Washington, DC, 5-9-09. Aslo shown are Ed Chen, incoming WHCA president (center), and White House Press Secretart Robert Gibbs. WASHINGTON - MAY 9: (AFP OUT) President Barack Obama jokes about "speaking off the cuff" as the teleprompter stands are raised during the annual White House Correspondents' Association gala dinner May 9, 2009 at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Washington, DC. Flanking the president at the head table are Jennifer Loven, WHCA president (L) and Ed Chen, incoming WHCA president, and White House Press Secreatary Robert Gibbs (R). (Photo by Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)

What was most striking about Barack Obama’s solid performance at the White House correspondents dinner was his bond with the audience. His jokes were pretty much par for the course, leaving you with the impression that Obama was an affable guy with a good sense of humor who didn’t mind reading jokes that his staff wrote for him. There wasn’t a single joke that seemed to come from him, though he did seem to particularly enjoy his shots at his team, notably those at Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, and Hillary Clinton. But the crowd loved him like only a parent can love its child…which is pretty much the relationship I think that was at work on Saturday night. Washington’s correspondents — and so many celebs that it’s even money that next year the E! network will have a red carpet special broadcast from outside what is essentially a wonkfest — came to admire their creation.

Obama joked about how everyone in the crowd had voted for him (except of course, those buffo comic relief characters at the Fox table). And the resulting roar of laughter was both nervous and self-congratulatory at the same time: waves of “Yes, we did!” rolling across the ballroom. And although Obama did not strike a wrong note, the closest he came was in a joke about David Axelrod in which he implied the two of them actually launched his candidacy for the presidency back in the day. Because it wasn’t Axelrod who made Barack Obama, it was Aaron Sorkin. 

On Friday, here on the FP site, Stephen Walt wrote a thoughtful post on whether Obama would be more like Nixon, Carter, or Clinton. He suggested Nixon might be the best model and honestly, personality and legal missteps aside, you can do much worse as a president than to emulate Nixon’s broad, activist and balanced policy agenda. But whatever Obama may derive from the list posed by our Professor Walt, he owes his presidency at least in equal measure to men like Andrew Shepherd, Jed Bartlett, and David Palmer, almost certainly the three best loved presidents since JFK. (Though close behind them you would have to add James Marshall, Thomas J. Whitmore, Dave Kovic and a personal favorite of my own, Jackson Evans. Who knows, you might even throw in MacKenzie Allen and Laura Roslin, though I think they were really intended to be setting the stage for someone else to be president. You probably however, would not want to include Mays Gilliam on this list for a whole host of reasons, or, for that matter, other really bad examples like James Dale, Thomas “Tug” Benson, or, perhaps the best worst example of them all, Merkin Muffley.)

The fact that none of these people ever existed is secondary. Or maybe it’s primary.  Because since these presidents were all fictional they could be tailored to more closely fit our ideals (or in the case of the latter batch our fears) of what a president might be. And even though some of them may be based on historical figures (I have friends from the Clinton administration who still scrap over which character from “The West Wing” was actually based on them), it is how a historical figure like Barack Obama is based on them that might be most interesting. When Barack Obama popped in to the press room at the White House the other day, did it seem familiar to you? (See the climactic scene in which Andrew Shepherd does likewise in The American President.) A couple weeks ago, we noted how Dave Kovic as the stand-in for the fictional 46th president, Bill Mitchell, brought his cabinet together as Obama did to trim the budget. Jed Bartlett, on the West Wing, was a former professor, like Obama. David Palmer, of “24”, although he went to Georgetown like Bill Clinton, had game on the basketball court like our current President. And of course, Palmer, like President Tom Beck in Deep Impact, played by Morgan Freeman, broke the color barrier long before Obama. (So did Palmer’s brother Wayne, for that matter, as did Jimmy Smits character, Mathew Santos, on “The West Wing.” Of course, there it gets a little complicated because West Wing’s writers and producers have acknowledged that they actually based their character…an ethnic minority outsider seeking a post-partisan America…on Obama.)

Beyond the obvious similarities however, these characters all offered an idealized vision of the president that transcended the defects of the real presidents we have had most recently, offering characters that were courageous, above cheap politics, principled, and, for the most part, pretty darn liberal in their inclinations. Most influential, I think, are the creations of Sorkin, who first sketched out his fantasy White House in The American President and then added flesh to the bones when he was able to promote the White House Chief of Staff from that movie, Martin Sheen as A. J. MacInerney, to president on “West Wing.” His world, his White House, and the values embodied in it have probably shaped the public view of what a president should be more than any president in recent memory.  Although David Palmer in his three seasons on “24” probably comes up a close second. 

Of course, all this raises a question. If we were going to pick 10 fictional presidents with character traits for Obama to emulate, who would they be? My choices:

1. Jed Bartlett, “The West Wing” (Martin Sheen)

Bartlett and Obama are pretty close to begin with.  But here we start with ideals and conscience.

2. David Palmer, “24” (Dennis Haysbert)

Palmer is fortitude…although his tolerance of Canadian torture freak Jack Bauer is hard to excuse.

3. Andrew Shepherd, The American President (Michael Douglas)

Shepherd may not be able to order flowers for his girlfriend, but he offers a great example how not to succumb to lowest common denominator politics in Washington.

4. The President, Fail Safe (Henry Fonda)

The President offers humility and character…in part, of course, because he once played “Young Mr. Lincoln.” (Though we could do without the nuclear Armageddon part, of course.)

5. Dave Kovic, Dave (Kevin Kline)

Dave brings common sense to the equation…and a good accountant. Also, of course, he knows how to ride a hog, which is a useful skill when it comes to managing the congress.

6. Jackson Evans, The Contender (Jeff Bridges)

In the end, Evans proves just as wily as a president needs to be. Also who is cooler than Jeff Bridges?

7. Tom Beck, Deep Impact (Morgan Freeman)

Well, come to think of it, Morgan Freeman is cooler than anyone. Morgan Freeman could be president of anything. Be like Morgan Freeman and you can hardly go wrong.

8. Thomas J. Whitmore, Independence Day (Bill Pullman)

As kick-ass president’s go, he is much more likeable and believable than Harrison Ford in Air Force One…which is saying something since Pullman is using fighter airplanes to battle space aliens with ships the size of Cleveland.

9. Monroe Cole, Welcome to Mooseport, (Gene Hackman)

He’s a jerk for most of the movie, but in the end he learns how to admit his mistakes…and of course, puts love first. The admitting mistakes thing is important, and, it’s hard not to like Gene Hackman.

10. Honorable Mention: James Cromwell…

Almost no president Cromwell plays is terribly likeable from Bob Fowler in The Sum of All Fears to George H.W. Bush in W. or President D. Wire Newman in “The West Wing” or Lyndon Johnson in RFK…but he brings something to the presidency Obama needs to load up on…experience. (And he was also Prince Philip and Jack Bauer’s dad.)

Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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