The early decades of television rarely saw characters grappling with real world events, much less referencing actual people such as American presidents. But as television news helped to make the president a more familiar and relatable figure to the average American, it stood to reason that TV dramas in particular would want to investigate the mostly mysterious processes of the Oval Office and use them as plot fuel. Some of my favorite TV presidents, in order of awesomeness:
5. Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), Commander in Chief: Remember when it was widely believed that this series was part of some group Hollywood strategy to get America used to the idea of a female president, so that we would all feebly roll over when Hillary Clinton decided to run? Yeah, it didn't quite work out for either Clinton or Commander in Chief, which never made it to a second season. Davis played a political independent who was elected vice president on the Republican ticket and was then promoted when the president died suddenly. The series portrayed Allen as a loving wife and mother at home, and as someone continually under siege on the job. While Davis was excellent as always (she won a Golden Globe), the series no doubt suffered by comparison with The West Wing.
4. Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase), Saturday Night Live: The 38th President, with his high-pitched Midwestern accent, was as difficult for an impressionist to convey as his predecessor Richard Nixon was a cinch. One of the ways Saturday Night Live, which debuted in 1975, showed it was going to be a different kind of comedy was that instead of making Chase put on a bald cap and asking him to try to imitate Ford outright, he simply showed up onstage with no special makeup and portrayed Ford as a klutz who seemed barely functional. It might not have been fair to Ford, who in reality was a decent athlete and had almost no edges that made for good comedy. But fairness and satire don't always go together well.
3 (tie). David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), 24: Presidential orders have been a part of every season of 24, but the most memorable presidents on the show have been Palmer, a candidate in the first season and the chief executive in the third; and Logan, whose surprise unveiling as a deceptively idiotic mastermind was the highlight of Season Five. Palmer was almost the perfect fantasy politician at first: a military veteran with an unfailing sense of rectitude (and a sociopathic wife). Unfortunately, once he actually became the president, the magic was gone. The Palmer of Season Three was wishy-washy and naive to the point of embarrassment. Logan, on the other hand, was so hateful as to seem completely realistic. Apparently a spineless worm at first, an accidental president completely willing to contract out responsibility, he was in fact deeply involved in all the nefarious Season Five events, including the assassination of Palmer. Logan can't be considered a role model, but if you're cynical about politicians, his portrayal will probably look pretty realistic to you.
2. Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Battlestar Galactica: She gets more done with terminal cancer than most presidents can in the pink of health--and she's doing it under continual pressure from Cylons. A former secretary of education who became president when everyone else above her in the pecking order was killed, she quickly showed she had what it took to be a leader in dangerous times, at times wielding nearly dictatorial powers. Roslin also gets points for getting away with drug use that would destroy a real president were it to become known. I'm cheating a bit here because Roslin is president of the Colonies and not the United States, but anyone who can order the airlocking of bad guys deserves to be considered an honorary Oval Office resident.
1. Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), The West Wing: One of the most honored TV dramas in history, The West Wing was originally slated to focus almost entirely on White House staffers, with the president as an occasional and remote presence. But the wry likability of Bartlet led series creator Aaron Sorkin to change his mind, and the result was not only the most memorable presidency in TV history, but the almost perfect boss. Unlike most TV presidents, who seem to exist in a politics-free universe quite unlike modern America, both Bartlet and his series were Democrats and weren't afraid of showing it (although Bartlet's path to the White House--he was a Nobel Prize-winning economist--was suitably politics-free). But while the speechmaking could get a bit ripe, and the series seemed to fade in the pro-Bush mood following 9/11, Bartlet was a reminder of why so many of us continue to hope for the best when it comes time to cast our ballots.