Let’s review: Despite waging a controversial campaign marked by racism and discriminatory rhetoric, allegations of sexually harassing women, volatile and violent rallies, insults towards minorities and the disabled and praise for the likes of Russian and North Korean leaders, and with zero previous political experience himself, Trump defeated democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State and the first female nominee for the office of President. It was an election that became so bizarre and overwhelming that if we had witnessed these past 18 months in a movie or on a TV show, we wouldn’t have believed it.
Yet here we are. So as we all consider how to proceed, why not look to fiction? Below, we’ve assembled the best and worst American Presidents of film and television—fictional leaders that Trump would do well to emulate or avoid.
10. KIEFER SUTHERLAND AS PRESIDENT TOM KIRKMAN, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (beginning 2016)
“I don’t need a nuclear solution. I need a political one.”
Kiefer Sutherland has had his finger on the pulse of American fears for two television shows now. The first was the action espionage thriller 24, which premiered in November 2001 and resonated with viewers in a post-September 11 climate, ultimately going on to span eight seasons (with a spin-off series, 24: Legacy, set to debut in early 2017). The second is his current television series, Designated Survivor, which puts Sutherland in the shoes of the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development who becomes President after an explosion at the U.S. Capitol takes the lives of the former President and the entire Cabinet.
Imagine a Congress without all the hypocrisy, flip-flopping, and deadlock—in other words, without all the usual politics. Replace it with a single leader who has near-unlimited authority and whose only concern is fixing the country. It’s not a permanent form of government (otherwise it’d be a dictatorship), but for an America on the brink of anarchy, with protests and panic in the streets, it can be startlingly appealing.
After September 11, we needed a hero who would stop at nothing to root out and fight terrorism, wherever it might be. In 2016, we need a President who doesn’t declare war without knowing who’s responsible with 100 percent certainty. Who doesn’t fly off the handle into a rage when challenged, but who actually listens to others even if he doesn’t agree. We only know newly appointed President Tom Kirkman for a few episodes of Designated Survivor so far, but from what we’ve seen, the American people are lucky that he was the only leader in Washington who survived.
9. LUKE WILSON AS PRESIDENT JOE “NOT SURE” BAUERS, IDIOCRACY (2006)
“You know things are bad when they’re coming to me for answers.”
An average IQ in 2005 is equal to a genius-level intellect in the year 2505, a sad fact that US Army librarian Corporal “Average Joe” Bauers realizes when he awakens after 500 years in a suspended animation experiment gone wrong. Here, in 26th century America, humanity lives in plastic containers and is preoccupied with entertainment that only comes in the form of sex, butt jokes, and monster truck rallies. Their proud anti-intellectualism means they can only speak limited English, and everybody is named after corporate products like Frito or Mountain Dew.
Using such unknown skills such as logic and basic common sense, Joe ends the nation’s food shortages by watering soil with actual water instead of the sports drinks that had been used previously. He quickly becomes Vice President and then President, vowing additional reforms that will help to save humankind. He’s not a great leader, but his heart is in the right place.
8. MORGAN FREEMAN AS PRESIDENT TOM BECK, DEEP IMPACT (1998)
“Life will go on. We will prevail.”
Imagine having to break it to the American people that a comet bigger than Mount Everest, weighing 500 billion tons, is hurtling towards Earth to wipe out all civilization. All the plans to destroy the rock or knock it off-course have failed, and all of humanity will simply have to weather the storm. Well, those of us who survive.
Luckily, that President also happens to be Morgan Freeman, whose calm demeanor and soothing voice not only help to convey his grim message to the American people but keep people together at a time when there could be riots in the streets. There’s nothing President Beck can do to prevent this incoming extinction-level event, but he never shrinks away from his responsibilities, serving as a somber-but-composed presence during the worst crisis that human beings have ever faced. If there’s still a country after all this, we’d vote for him again.
7. FREDRIC MARCH AS PRESIDENT JORDAN LYMAN, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964)
“There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker.”
Right now, if President Obama were to successfully negotiate a disarmament treaty with Russia, there would be celebrations across the country. No doubt the same would’ve occurred in the 1960s, when tensions were running high between the United States and the Soviet Union. But for the military leaders of the book and subsequent film Seven Days in May, the President is a fool for believing that the Soviets will actually disarm their nuclear arsenal.
In desperation, the fictional Joint Chiefs plan a coup d'état to remove both the President and his cabinet in seven days, with the Army seizing control of the country’s communication networks and blocking Congress from putting the new peace treaty into effect. The President realizes what is happening and moves quickly to counter their moves, leading to a race to the television, to be the first to denounce the other to the world and settle the conflict.
Word has it that President John F. Kennedy had read Seven Days in May and encouraged its film adaptation, believing the scenario could occur in the United States. Allegedly, the Pentagon didn’t want to see the film produced but Kennedy did. It’s not hard to imagine his campaigning to tell the story of a leader willing to fight—not with weapons but with words, against warfare, bloodshed, and nuclear annihilation. More than 50 years later, it’s still a battle.
6. KEVIN KLINE AS DAVE KOVIC AS PRESIDENT BILL MITCHELL, DAVE (1993)
“You don’t really know how much you can do until you stand up and decide to try.”
Cheery Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) has made a career out of running a temp employment agency with a side job impersonating President Bill Mitchell. But when Mitchell suffers a stroke, the White House Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) invites the lookalike Kovic to temporarily pretend to be the President for real. His goal is to get the Vice President out of the picture, then have Mitchell suffer a more serious stroke, and finally to ascend to the Presidency himself. The only problem is that in real life, President Mitchell was a philandering, lame-duck jackass. Dave is not.
As “President,” Dave’s energy revives Mitchell’s public popularity, he restores funding for a homeless shelter, and introduces a new jobs bill. In just a few weeks, his enthusiasm allows him to overcome the usual bureaucratic red tape to manage the impossible in Washington: actually accomplish something. Dave may not have officially been the President, but his presence effected real results for the American people.
5. MICHAEL DOUGLAS AS PRESIDENT ANDREW SHEPHERD, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995)
“He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-age, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character…”
The American President (Michael Douglas) has enough on his plate between running the country, preparing for re-election and passing a new crime bill to have to worry about finding a date for a state dinner. When he meets environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), he’s intrigued, but her presence creates more problems: a carbon emissions bill she’s securing votes for that runs in competition with his own, and the new excuse for a smear campaign by a Senator (Richard Dreyfuss) hopeful for the presidency.
Risking his re-election, President Shepard decides to double down and do what’s right. He pushes the controversial environmental bill forward, and he throws out the weak crime bill in favor of creating a stronger one in due time that will includes gun-control reform. The stakes and risks may be lower for a fictional leader to make sweeping changes than a real sitting President, but Shepard’s commitment to take the high ground is an inspiration. And now, more than 20 years since The American President’s release, we’re still on the lookout for upstanding leaders willing to take a stand to take on global warming or gun control.
4. BILL PULLMAN AS PRESIDENT THOMAS J. WHITMORE, INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)
“Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression or persecution…but from annihilation. We’re fighting for our right to live. To exist.”
According to political scientists, the “rally ‘round the flag” effect boosts popular support of the President of the United States in the short term, during periods of war or international crisis. John F. Kennedy’s approval rating jumped to 75 percent in December 1962 after the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the days after September 11, George W. Bush experienced an all-time approval rating high of 90 percent.
Fictional President Whitmore’s public opinion must’ve gone through the roof after Independence Day. Under his leadership, top scientists and military personnel developed the idea to create a virus that would cripple an invading alien army that had destroyed almost every major city on Earth. Not only that but the guy, a former Gulf War fighter pilot, actually climbed into an F-18 fighter jet himself to engage the spaceships. And 20 years later, when the aliens returned with an even bigger arsenal in Independence Day: Resurgence, President Whitmore would kick their asses again. Bravo, Mr. President.
3. HARRISON FORD AS PRESIDENT JAMES MARSHALL, AIR FORCE ONE (1997)
“Real peace is not just the absence of conflict; it’s the presence of justice.”
The first time we see President Marshall (Harrison Ford) in Air Force One, he’s attending a diplomatic dinner in Russia where he apologizes for American inaction during a genocide in Kazakhstan. Veering off-script, he pledges to never again allow political self-interests to get in the way of doing what is morally right.
They’re bold words, but Marshall gets to put his money where his mouth is when Russian terrorists loyal to the former genocidal regime hijack Air Force One that same night. The gunmen take the plane and race to the presidential escape pod in the cargo hold, but they’re unable to prevent it from safely ejecting. No matter, they’ve got the plane and dozens of White House hostages; more than enough to negotiate for the release of their imprisoned dictator. But unknown to the terrorists, what they’ve also got is President Marshall, a Medal of Honor recipient and Vietnam War veteran, who decided to stay aboard and re-take the aircraft.
Although this film operates essentially like Die Hard on an airplane, the stakes have changed. In Los Angeles, Bruce Willis as John McClane was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he was still a cop. We expect him to try and take on the bad guys. In Air Force One, no one actually expects the President to personally fight the enemy himself, in the same way that no one expects politicians to follow through on every promise they make. But in this case, the President sticks to his guns.
2. DENNIS HAYSBERT AS PRESIDENT DAVID PALMER, 24 (beginning 2001)
“If this bomb goes off today, it’ll hurt us, but it’ll destroy you.”
Nearly a decade before Barack Obama would assume the real-life presidency of the United States, the creators of 24 envisioned an African American democratic candidate for President. As David Palmer, actor Dennis Haysbert portrays an ideal leader—highly educated, ethical, resilient, and unwavering—who manages to operate within and overcome an administration plagued by multiple assassination attempts, political scandals, and even his own duplicitous ex-wife.
During the (many) crises on 24, President Palmer was often the only moral or logical voice among his team. On several occasions, his decisions clashed with nearly his entire staff and members of cabinet, who even once threatened to invoke the 25th amendment and have him removed from office. But his foresight would come to prevent major attacks on America. For much of the earlier seasons of 24, if people listened to President Palmer and Jack Bauer and followed their lead, they could’ve saved valuable time and the show could’ve just been called 12.
1. MARTIN SHEEN AS PRESIDENT JOSIAH “JED” BARTLET, THE WEST WING (beinning 1999)
“Decisions are made by those who show up.”
As the moral center of The West Wing, President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was created as a Catholic Nobel Prize-winning intellectual progressive, in many ways a liberal response to the real-life presidency of George W. Bush. At a time in the early 2000s, when the real United States found itself mired in drawn-out conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, led by a good ol’ boy who couldn’t pronounce the word “nuclear,” audiences could go home every night and experience a different political climate on television. Here, fictional President Bartlet was making such strides as the creation of millions of new jobs, a Social Security reform plan with bipartisan support from Congress, appointing the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice and first female Chief Justice, negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement and more over his eight years in the White House.
Bartlet isn’t topping this list just because he’s a liberal Democrat (as you’ll see, our No. 1 on the “worst” list is also a Democrat); he’s here because after appearing in 155 episodes over seven seasons of The West Wing, you really get to know a guy—and Bartlet was one of the good ones. Any way you look at it, his initiatives always put the American people first. He was an ideal leader, combining the warmth and charm of Bill Clinton and the integrity and sincerity of Jimmy Carter, with the pragmaticism and decision-making abilities of Richard Nixon. He was civic-minded, funny, intelligent but down-to-Earth, and he could deliver a speech to rouse you to your feet or put you on your ass. This is the kind of guy our Founding Fathers would high-five
8. DAN AYKROYD AS PRESIDENT WILLIAM HANEY, MY FELLOW AMERICANS (1996)
“You get into that kind of thing, you open up a whole new bag of cats.”
In this film literally about the worst fictional Presidents ever, incumbent President William Haney (Dan Aykroyd) is guilty of a money laundering scheme and taking bribes while in office. His solution is to shift the blame to two former Presidents, played by Jack Lemmon and James Garner, who become embroiled in the drama in order to clear their names and curry favor in their political parties for a possible additional future run for President. This comedy has the duo chasing down clues and trying their best to avoiding scandals, explosions and NSA hitmen. And along the way, they encounter the ordinary American citizens who have been displaced and affected by the terrible presidencies of these awful men.
Dan Aykroyd is at his comedic best as the villainous Commander-in-chief, regal on the surface and smarmy underneath, but the laughs come with the thought that maybe ordeals like these aren’t necessarily all fiction. Corruption, lies, and strange, desperate leaders making moves is an idea that strikes a little too close to home.
7. NICK NOLTE AS PRESIDENT RICHARD GRAVES, GRAVES (beginning 2016)
“The truth is until we start forgiving ourselves for every bad decision we’ve ever made, we’ll be defined by our past and nothing will ever get done.”
Considered the “last great Republican president” in a fictional universe where Bill Clinton never existed, Richard Graves (played here by a scraggly Nick Nolte) succeeded George H. W. Bush as President in the 1990s—and proceeded to drive America into the ground. Oil drilling, border policy, gay rights, financial deficits; nothing was safe when it came to the Graves administration, whose policies would damage the United States for decades.
Graves realizes this, thanks to a simple Google search result for himself on the Internet that yields articles that scream headlines like, “How Graves Put America Six Feet Under” and which point to Graves as possibly the worst President of all time. He may be out of office and out to pasture—at a ranch in New Mexico, in fact—but he’s not dead yet. In the pilot episode, he commits to securing funding for a cancer center, after having gutted cancer research funds while in office. As a President, Graves was bad, maybe the worst. But he knows that, and now he’s trying.
6. TIM ROBBINS AS THE PRESIDENT, AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (1999)
“What are you talking about? Whose girlfriend?”
In 1997, when Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) thaws out after 30 years of cryostasis in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, he threatens the UN with nuclear weapons and holds them at ransom—for one milllllion dollars. That was big money in 1967, but it’s not a large sum to world leaders in the 1990s and he gets laughed out of the room. Two years later, Dr. Evil travels through time again, from 1999 to 1969, where he makes another threat: the destruction of an American city every hour unless the President gives him 100 billlllon dollars. But in the 1960s, that’s not a realistic figure either, and Dr. Evil is the butt of the joke again.
As the President in 1969, Tim Robbins looks the part and gets a few points here for literally laughing in a terrorist’s face. But we’re not sure what’s worse: the fact that he’s making light of a madman who has the ability to destroy worlds and time-travel, or that the President (and all his advisors) believe “that amount of money doesn’t even exist” when the United States’ total spending in 1969 actually was in the hundreds of billions.
5. JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS AS PRESIDENT SELINA MEYER, VEEP (beginning 2012)
“I’m gonna completely obliterate him with my fucking poise and sophistication.”
On Veep, politician Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) began as a mostly useless Vice President, delegated to menial work and trivial matters behind President Stuart Hughes, the candidate she went up against and lost to in the primaries. The following seasons would have Selina rising to the presidency, albeit by mostly no means of her own. Someone chooses not to run or things fall apart, which yields the vacant seat to her by default. But that’s OK, because once in the Oval Office, she isn’t exactly killing it.
Petty and profane, Selina is self-absorbed and amoral. She is able to squeeze out of harrowing political situations through blackmail, blaming others and just blind luck. During a Congressional hearing, she scapegoats a campaign manager for misappropriation of funds. When she accidentally tweets an offensive comment, she blames it on Chinese hackers—and then imposes sanctions on China. We’re not sure to be terrified or impressed, but we’re happy she’s not our President.
4. PETER SELLERS AS PRESIDENT MERKIN MUFFLEY, DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
President Muffley may have assembled the world’s greatest political, scientific and military minds to figure out what to do when a rogue, insane general launches nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union, but that doesn’t mean he can control them. Peter Sellers plays the ultimate Cold War intellectual as the diplomatic voice of reason who’s too meek to actually do anything. During filming, Sellers actually wanted to give President Muffley the sniffles during the run of the film, but it caused too much laughter on-set from the film crew.
Named after a pubic wig, Merkin isn’t a President; he’s an impotent referee. He explains the nuclear attack to the Russians as being the fault of a base commander being “a little funny in the head” who “went and did a silly thing.”
3. JACK NICHOLSON AS PRESIDENT JAMES DALE, MARS ATTACKS! (1997)
“Isn’t the universe big enough for both of us? What is wrong with you people?”
When silver flying saucers suddenly appear over Earth, President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) arranges for first contact with the unknown alien species in Pahrump, Nevada. But a hippie releases a white dove as a symbol of peace and the Martians open fire with their ray guns—first on the dove, then on the crowd.
OK, our fault. Maybe the Martians interpreted the dove as a symbol of war. President Dale approves another meeting, this time with the alien ambassador before Congress. But again, the aliens start blasting and most of the Legislative Branch winds up vaporized. The President’s military advisors recommend a retaliation using nuclear weapons but he refuses. It’s all been surely a cultural misunderstanding, he reasons. If only there was a way to communicate with the aliens, to make a connection.
Trouble is, these evil green-blooded bastards aren’t looking for peace and they take no prisoners. Barking like ducks, they’re as malicious and hideous as the supernatural creatures from the ultraviolent 1960s trading cards that Mars Attacks! is based on, and President Dale is in no way equipped to deal with this threat. We’re not sure if he’s truly hoping for the best or simply oblivious to the realities of what’s happening, but by the time he figures it all out, the aliens are at his front door. “Can’t we all just get along?” He asks in an impassioned speech. Not with these martians, pal.
2. GREGORY ITZIN AS PRESIDENT CHARLES LOGAN, 24 (beginning 2001)
“This whole thing was planned to make our country safer, stronger. To protect our interests, and it all spiraled out of control.”
Charles Logan emerged on the scene in 24 as the terrified Vice President brought in to take over after the President was critically injured in a terrorist attack. Initially, Charles is inept and slow to react; in one instance, he fears the political ramifications of detaining a suspect without charge, even though the man in question is their only lead to a missing nuclear warhead. An inexperienced leader, President Logan was heavily influenced by the advice of others, being unwilling or unable to make difficult decisions himself. But as the episodes go on, he finds the courage to take credit for the work that other people accomplished and a willingness to turn a blind eye to injustice if it suits him.
In later seasons, President Logan takes a front seat to controlling the action, however poorly. His administration becomes complicit in several terrorist attacks against the United States and even when Charles is put under house arrest for his crimes, he is later pardoned—only to continue his covering up of information and attempts to have people murdered.
Actor Gregory Itzin’s Emmy-nominated performance of President Logan carefully balances the apprehension of a weak leader with the intoxication of unlimited power as President, plus a receding hairline and terrible posture that bring to mind Richard Nixon. Whether it was assassinating former presidents or collaborating with terrorists, nothing was beneath Charles Logan.
1. KEVIN SPACEY AS PRESIDENT FRANCIS J. UNDERWOOD, HOUSE OF CARDS (beginning 2013)
“We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.”
After being passed over for the position of Secretary of State in President-elect Garrett Walker’s new Cabinet, Democrat House Majority Whip “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) sets his sights on bigger aspirations: destroying Walker’s presidency and securing the Oval Office for himself.
House of Cards debuted in 2013, an American adaptation of the British television show of the same name. But unlike the four episodes of the BBC miniseries, our House of Cards has spanned four seasons (and was renewed for a fifth), drawing out Frank Underwood’s rise to power over years. He makes the most of his time, committing virtually every crime imaginable in order to reach the Presidency: obstruction of justice, witness tampering, money laundering, extortion and blackmail, bribery, assault, kidnapping and two counts of first-degree murder—not to mention animal cruelty. The pilot episode begins with Frank strangling his neighbor’s dog; he says the animal is suffering from “useless pain,” but we don’t really know for sure.
With Frank Underwood, it’s safe to assume the worst. He’s not just committing one or two (or 10) of these crimes in the heat of a single moment. It’s all calculated and deliberate. His actions are all building blocks that Frank is using to build his Presidency from the ground up, all of it ready to collapse at any moment. The tension of House of Cards is that it doesn’t—or hasn’t yet. Somehow, Frank Underwood has gotten away with all of it up to now.
The lies, the controversies, the demagoguery, the political debates that descend to becoming sideshow acts, perceived associations with the Ku Klux Klan, backroom conversations with the likes of shady billionaires and the Russian President, and playing on the fears of the American people to advance his own career. Somehow, the American people haven’t seen through the deception. Somehow, they don’t see the connection being made. Yet.