The New Take on Presidential Fiction
There have been countless fictional portrayals of fake American presidents in pop culture. From the alien-battling President Thomas Whitmore in “Independence Day” to hopeless romantic President Andrew Shepherd in “the American President.” Both those films were released within a year of each other in the mid-90s, ushering in a new golden age of fictional presidents, culminating in ass-kicking President James Marshall in 1997’s “Air Force One.” But a new take on presidential fiction is finding inspiration in the real thing.
The 1990s saw some of the most-compelling fake presidents in film, including Morgan Freeman as (gasp!) an African-American president. But the past few years have seen an interesting fictionalization of real presidents.
Sitting and former American presidents have been caricatured in popular culture for decades now, but a sudden wave of new historical fiction putting real presidents in entirely-fictional stories is being produced in a variety of media. Off-broadway, where presidential satire doesn’t have much of a history, two fascinating pieces of presidential fiction have made some headlines. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a rock musical casting the seventh president as a rock star, continues to have its run extended. Meanwhile, “When We Go Upon the Sea,” which portrays George W. Bush standing trial for war crimes, is set to make its off-Broadway debut.
We’ve speculated about how George W. Bush might be portrayed in popular culture in the coming years, and both he and his presidential successor have somehow become two of the world’s most famous fictional characters. It started in 2006 with “Death of a President,” a mostly-forgotten film built around the fictional assassination of George W. Bush. It was preceded by “The Plot Against America,” Philip Roth’s alternate history in which FDR loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh. Since then, the president-as-fiction concept has expanded markedly.
This year, George W. Bush’s former communications director, Nicolle Wallace, will see her novel about a female president published. But her boss’ successor has become as much a fictional character as a historical one. After being elected, President Obama was featured alongside the webbed wonder in a special issue of Spiderman. Since then, he’s been portrayed in an Archie comic, as well as a President Evil comic, in which he battles zombies alongside Sarah Palin, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton. There was even a muscle-bound portrayal of the sitting president in a bizarre comic book entitled “Barack the Barbarian.” And both Bush and Obama have been controversially portrayed as Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker.
We’ll no doubt see more of these historical retellings. When it comes to the traditional fake presidents, we enjoyed David Mamet’s “November” on Broadway, but we’ll probably ignore the presidential vampire novel.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.