In the last couple of months, my wife and I have been re-watching episodes of “The West Wing” on Netflix. And about every other episode, one of us invariably ends up remarking wistfully, “Why can’t Donald Trump be more like Jed Bartlet?”
Which recently got me to thinking about Hollywood's best presidents ever.
Here are my Top 10 fictional presidents, in ascending order:
No. 10 — President Monroe “Eagle” Cole. The former president of the United States, played by Gene Hackman, retires to his vacation home in Mooseport, Maine, and is coaxed into running for mayor of the small town in the 2004 comedy “Welcome to Mooseport.” When the local hardware store owner and plumber, played by Ray Romano, also decides to run for mayor, hilarity ensues.
Sure, President Cole is a bit of a stereotypical slimy politician. But this is Gene Hackman we’re talking about, people — an actor who could make any character look fascinating and relatable.
No. 9 — President John Mackenzie. Although his is only a supporting role, the eminently watchable Michael Keaton plays the president of the United States in the 2004 romantic comedy “First Daughter." It's pretty much a chick flick, and fairly predictable fare. But Pres. Mackenzie is wise and warm and funny, and one could easily see him as the occupant of the Oval Office. Or your dad.
No. 8 — President Russell Kramer OR President Matt Douglas. Take your pick on this one, folks. Either Kramer (played by acting legend Jack Lemmon) or Douglas (James Garner of “Rockford Files”) would do an admirable job in the office of the president. In the 1996 adventure comedy “My Fellow Americans,” the two actors play former presidents and rivals intent on exposing corruption in the current administration. They’re frantic, they’re funny, and they even have their own "Hail to the Chief" theme songs.
No. 7 — President Abraham Lincoln. Yes, yes. We all know that Lincoln was a real president, and a darn fine one. But the fictional 16th president of the United States in 2012’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is even cooler. When this axe-wielding Honest Abe discovers that vampires are planning to take over the country, he resolves to emancipate their spirits from their undead corpses.
A president who can free the slaves AND protect us from vampires? Yes, please.
No. 6 — President Thomas J. Whitmore. Sure, this president — played by Bill Pullman — seemed like kind of a jerk when first we saw him interact with Jeff Goldblum’s character in the 1996 film “Independence Day.” But then Whitmore lost his wife and gave a stirring speech or two, and he went on to pilot a fighter jet against alien forces, and by the end of the movie we were solidly in his corner.
No. 5 — President Thomas Kirkman. On the dramatic television series “Designated Survivor,” Kiefer Sutherland plays a cabinet member who finds himself promoted to commander-in-chief when everyone ahead of him in the presidential line of succession is killed in a terrorist attack. He may not have the mad fighting skills of “24’s” Jack Bauer, but President Kirkman still has the gravelly voice, the steely determination, and just enough aw-shucks humility to peg him as an honest man of the people.
And I suppose we as a nation could do worse than waking up one morning to find the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development promoted to the title of POTUS. Oh, wait. That’s Ben Carson, isn’t it?
No. 4 — President Andrew Shepherd. Michael Douglas plays a widower who hooks up with an environmental lobbyist in the 1994 romantic comedy-drama “The American President.” Written by Arron Sorkin — who would go on to create another amazing president in “The West Wing” — the film includes a couple of stirring speeches that are particularly apropos for our current political climate.
Try watching Pres. Shepherd’s speech near the end of the movie (“I can tell you without hesitation, being president of this country is entirely about character”) without feeling a lump in your throat.
No. 3 — President Dave Kovic. OK, so technically Dave Kovic was never president. He was merely a lookalike for President Bill Mitchell, a philandering, corrupt politician who made Donald Trump look like — well, OK, even Mitchell couldn’t make the current president look any better. But Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver star in “Dave” (1993), a romantic comedy that allows us to imagine what it would be like to have an honest, kind, regular American in the Oval Office.
No. 2 — President James Marshall. When a group of terrorists hijack Air Force One, the president — played by Harrison Ford of “Star Wars” fame — sets out to take back the plane by force in the 1997 political action-thriller “Air Force One.”
Stirring political speeches? Please. President Marshall would rather just punch bad guys in the face and say, “Get off my plane!”
And the No. 1 choice for best fictional commander-in-chief is …
President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. For seven seasons beginning in 1999, viewers of the TV drama “The West Wing” got a chance to see the government how it might have been if flawed but ultimately well-meaning people ran it. Martin Sheen played the two-term U.S. president with equal bits of wisdom, strength and humor — with just enough self-doubt, righteous indignation and quirkiness to keep things interesting.
True, President Bartlet covered up the fact he had multiple sclerosis.
But that seems like the least of the electorate’s worries these days.