Can Watching a Fictional Black or Female President Help Americans Elect the Real Thing?
Can watching a fictional person of color or woman serve as president prepare people to elect the real thing?
Turns out, TV and film have been presenting us with a diversity of fictional presidents long before we were ever poised to elect an actual non-white or non-male. But even Hollywood had trouble believing America could look past its own prejudices to choose such people, with many of these presidents achieving the job by accident or presented as jokey punchlines (even Ernie Hudson, the black guy from Ghostbusters, has played a President).
I put together a story for today's Floridian looking at the various minority and female commanders in chief, with a indication on our Inspiration-scale™ just how much each portrayal might have prompted us to accept the candidates we see today. Here's an excerpt, with some clips so you can judge yourself:
How did he get the job? A little-known congressman made president pro tempore of the Senate when the vice president has a stroke, he becomes president when the incumbent and the speaker of the House are killed in a building collapse. Inspiration scale: 3 out of 10. Could there be a more outlandish way to become president? Based on Irving Wallace's 1964 book, the movie seems tailor-made to assure '70s audiences it could never actually happen.
How did he get the job? Presumably elected. Freeman shines in the same grandfatherly sidekick mode he worked in The Shawshank Redemption and Bruce Almighty, helping white folks work out their problems before an asteroid destroys the eastern seaboard. Inspiration scale: 6. He's the coolest president on film. Of course, he's leading a country facing extinction.
How did he get the job? Elected. Palmer then overcomes a mutinous vice president and Cabinet to avoid a needless war in the Middle East started by greedy multinational businessmen. The similarity to real life these days is inescapable. Inspiration scale: 9. If only our real-life president could have been this prescient.
Patty Duke as Julia Mansfield in Hail to the Chief (1985)
How did she get the job? Presumably elected. Duke was a particularly harried president in this ABC sitcom, saddled with a cheating husband, a sassy black secretary of state and wacky plots. Inspiration scale: 5. Fortunately, the pain lasted only seven episodes.
How did she get the job? OK, technically, Vice President Bennett never becomes president; she refuses to sign a document giving her the power when Harrison Ford's President James Marshall is taken captive by terrorists on Air Force One. Still, she rallies the military and Cabinet, looking serious and barking into telephones many times. Inspiration scale: 4. Not only does she refuse power when the president is forced to release a terrorist with a gun to his head, she really doesn't come up with any plan for saving him. Good thing the president used to be Indiana Jones.
How did she get the job? Tragedy strikes again! Incumbent Teddy Bridge dies of a sudden brain aneurysm, leaving Vice President Allen in the driver's seat. Inspiration scale: 8. Allen successfully reins in male power brokers determined to marginalize her. But producers wound up focusing more on male characters to save the show, which was canceled in its first season. The price you pay for being three years ahead of your time.