The presidential-election struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is unprecedented in American history. But in pop culture, it feels vaguely familiar. • Just as Obama began his rocket ride into our political consciousness, we were glued to NBC's The West Wing, where a charismatic Hispanic congressman was running for president against a more established candidate while facing questions about inexperience and race. • Our old TV Guides are thick with fictional female and minority presidents. But has watching them on television prepared us to elect the real thing?
Jimmy Smits, whose Matthew Santos eventually won the presidency on The West Wing's final season in 2005-06, remembered producer John Wells approaching him about the part:
"He felt that it was time for American audiences to see the possibility of a person of color going to higher office," Smits told me in July.
"We were all aware of the fact that Hillary was out there and Obama was out there and, you know, Bill Richardson (Hispanic governor of New Mexico and former congressman), that they were qualified people. So if there was some of us helping that out, well, that's great."
Later, West Wing writer Eli Attie told Britain's Guardian newspaper that he built some of Obama's attitudes into Santos. And Rod Lurie, creator of ABC's 2005 series about a female president, Commander in Chief, has admitted he crafted Geena Davis' steely Mackenzie Allen with Clinton in mind.
Turns out, TV and film have shown a diversity of fictional presidents long before we could elect a real one. And we've rated some on our 1 to 10 Inspiration-scale™ (10 is the highest) showing how they might have taught us to accept today's candidates.
James Earl Jones
as Douglass Dilman
in The Man (1972)
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.
Tommy "Tiny" Lister
as Galactic President Lindberg
in the Fifth Element (1997)
How did he get the job? Unknown. Serving as president of a deliciously twisted galaxy 250 years in the future, Lindberg's biceps size (Lister used to wrestle for the WWF) may have clinched the gig.
Inspiration scale: 4. Cool as it was to see an imposing actor who normally plays street thugs rule the Milky Way, everybody but star Bruce Willis looks like a cartoonish idiot in this surreal adventure.
as Tom Beck in
Deep Impact (1998)
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. Too bad it happened in a country facing extinction.
as David Palmer
in 24 (2002)
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 be this prescient.
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.
as Kathryn Bennett
in Air Force One (1997)
How did she get the job? 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.
as Laura Roslin
on Battlestar Galactica (2004)
How did she get the job? Literally everybody else who could fill the job dies. Roslin is secretary of education for the fictional Twelve Colonies when the robotic Cylons attack, killing everyone in government and all humans except for 50,000 or so. Still, she's a step up from Lorne Greene, who played Mack Daddy on the original, '70s version of this Star Wars ripoff.
Inspiration scale: 9. McDonnell's Roslin is tough enough to throw bad-guy Cylons into deep space, but tender enough to flirt with Edward James Olmos' flinty military leader, Commander Adama, on the Sci Fi Channel's remake. Imagine what she'd do to Osama bin Laden.
as Mackenzie Allen in
Commander in Chief (2005)
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.
as Allison Taylor
on 24 (2009)
How did she get the job? Unknown. Tony winner Jones will play the series' first female president in a slate of episodes that won't air until January, delayed by the writers strike.
Inspiration scale: 10. Given that America could have a female president by the time the series airs, Jones' work may not feel like fiction at all.
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.