Joe Biden has just been inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. He faces an unprecedently difficult task, thanks to a combination of a deadly pandemic, a divided country, and an economy that is diving deep into the well. That he is the oldest President ever to take office, at the age of 78, has led to justifiable anxiety about how energetic he will be in fulfilling his duties, although it should be noted that the film director Ridley Scott, aged 83, is still making demanding big-budget pictures with an energy of a much younger man and is about to embark on an epic Napoleon film, Kitbag, to star Joaquin Phoenix. Nonetheless, there is a world of difference between making films about leaders and being one, as Biden is about to discover.
His greatest advantage at present is that he is not Donald Trump, a President who leaves office (to the tune of “YMCA”) with unprecedentedly low approval ratings and the threat of impeachment, if not worse, hanging over him. Although it is too early to assess the Trump regime with any degree of objectivity, the most notable feature of its duration was the way in which Trump, unlike any previous occupant of the White House, seemed to be taking on an almost postmodern attitude towards his office. While Biden promises to be moderate, balanced and almost dull in his approach, Trump was a gleefully iconoclastic figure who governed by social media, thrived on often unnecessary confrontation and dissent and whose personal vanity led to his preening and poncing as if he was the most pampered of show ponies, rather than the nominal leader of the free world.
Yet Trump deserves credit, minimal though it undoubtedly is, for being at least partly in on the joke. (This clip remains hilarious.) Still, the joke remains a bitter one, and very much one that lay on the American people. As a businessman of dubious integrity and success, he took his, at best, modest achievement and parlayed it into a career on television and film, most notably in his role as host of The Apprentice, but also in his apparent obsession with making ostentatious cameo appearances in films as disparate as Home Alone 2, Zoolander and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps.
The ever-present orange glow of Biden’s predecessor will take a considerable time to vanish from the White House
He usually played an exaggerated and flattering version of himself, a brash, swaggering New York master of the universe, although he occasionally deigned to “act”; he appears briefly as a VIP club patron in 54, a film about the legendary nightclub Studio 54, and as “Waldo’s Dad” in the family film The Little Guys, in which he delivers the grimly prophetic line “Waldo, you’re the best son money can buy”. He is lascivious towards Elizabeth Hurley in The Job, asking Denis Leary “are you banging her?”, and swaps poorly written bon mots with Hurley’s ex Hugh Grant in Two Weeks’ Notice. When he appears in sitcoms as a special guest star, he is greeted with applause and adulation, perhaps as a contractual obligation. The overall impression that one has watching Trump is that he is not a real person so much as a strange, distanced construct, a piece of performance art made orange-tinged flesh. No wonder that his presidency unfolded in much the same fashion.
Yet Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama also took a similar, if more successful and less studied, approach to his own public appearance as President. In his case, Obama was the first post-West Wing President, the Aaron Sorkin-created series in which Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet became the saintly, inspirational avatar for all of liberal America’s fantasies about what a President could be. As the Bush era spiralled into recrimination and anger about Iraq, terrorism and the ongoing debate about America’s apparently reduced standing in the world, The West Wing offered reassurance. Here was a noble, upstanding leader, not without moments of human weakness and glimpses of frailty, but one who inspired his countrymen to do better and be better, with soaring oratory and sparkling wit.
It was unsurprising, then, that the Democratic Party, and then America itself, decided to choose Obama, a man blessed with charisma and rhetorical skill, over both the decent but decidedly more stolid John McCain, and then the underrated Mitt Romney. They had managed to elect their very own version of President Bartlet, and America’s first BAME leader to boot. Posterity has still not decided how successful a leader Obama was, although his recently published autobiography has made the case for the defence elegantly and convincingly, to say nothing of commercially successfully.
Yet his presidency also led to the rise of the Tea Party, and of Trump – a figure who is an extremely long way from Alan Alda’s gentlemanly Republican senator Arnold Vinick in The West Wing. Vinick ends the show by joining his rival Matt Santos in his administration as Secretary of State; it is difficult to imagine Trump being included in the Biden cabinet, any more than he would have made any overtures to Obama, a man who he repeatedly claimed was not an American citizen, as well as responsible for most of the evils in the world. Canny publishers have ensured that we must wait for the next instalment of Obama’s memoirs to find out his uncensored views of “The Donald”.
There are numerous fictitious Presidents who Biden would be wise not to emulate
Biden himself is unlikely to take direct inspiration from The West Wing, or even its spiritual forerunner, Sorkin’s film The American President, which featured Michael Douglas as a saintly, Clintonian – if that is not too oxymoronic an idea – Democratic President Andrew Shepherd, equally passionate about crime control and Annette Bening’s climate lobbyist. However, there are numerous other fictitious Presidents who he would be wise not to emulate, whether it is Gene Hackman’s adulterous and crooked Allen Richmond in Absolute Power, Henry Fonda’s beleaguered leader who has to order a nuclear attack on New York in order to avert World War 3 in Fail Safe or Peter Sellers’s hapless Merkin Muffley in Kubrick’s farcical treatment of the same subject, Doctor Strangelove, who at one point has to admonish his subordinates “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
If the most compelling fictional President of recent years has been Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in House of Cards, blithely committing any number of unspeakable offences, including murder, to achieve his nefarious aims, then Spacey’s own disgrace and subsequent disappearance from public life has had the unintended side-effect of giving Underwood the come-uppance that he never received in the programme.
After all, most American depictions of their POTUS have been solidly moral, or at least receive their just desserts. Whether it’s Kevin Kline’s hapless imposter eventually bringing decency to the office of his nefarious doppelganger in Dave, Morgan Freeman’s inspirational leader calling for calm after the world is nearly wiped out in Deep Impact or Cliff Robertson’s dastardly “president for life” being outsmarted by Kurt Russell’s nihilistic hero Snake Plissen in Escape from LA, their presence in a film all but guarantees a happy ending.
Still, if Biden becomes weary of being restrained and statesmanlike, he could at least look to two of the most entertaining depictions of the Oval Office’s occupant from Nineties action films. In the Harrison Ford vehicle Air Force One, the President’s plane is hijacked by terrorists attempting to force the release of a Kazakhstan dictator from captivity, leading the President (who is, naturally, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honour recipient) to take on the (considerably younger) hijackers in close-quarters derring-do, before eventually triumphantly expelling Gary Oldman’s lead villain from Air Force One with the immortal one-liner “Get off my plane!”
And even if the septuagenarian President might be slightly advanced in years for fisticuffs, he could always attempt to emulate Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore in the post-Reaganite fantasia Independence Day, a once-popular leader whose opinion poll ratings have fallen precipitously. Seizing the flimsy pretext of an alien invasion to ingratiate himself with voters once again, Whitmore, a Gulf War veteran, insists on putting himself in harm’s way by leading a hugely dangerous counter-attack against the invaders, but not before delivering a hammily stirring speech that Trump himself has unashamedly borrowed.
One can only hope that Biden is allowed time to watch fictitious portrayals of some of his forerunners
Whitmore calls out to “the world” (read: America) to stand up against “annihilation” (read: uncontrolled immigration, or Russia, or China, or the enemy du jour), and passionately inspires his followers with a Hollywood imitation of the St Crispin’s Day address from Henry V. As Whitmore declares, to the accompaniment of stirring music, “We are fighting for our right to live. To exist… We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” he inspires his country to take action against the evil interlopers. They duly find themselves bombed back to the Stone Age, and American exceptionalism is once again demonstrated. That one of his gallant (if eccentric) fellow pilots is played by Randy Quaid, who has now reinvented himself as a conspiracy theorist so wacky that he makes Trump look sombre and unexciting, is a mark of the surprising absence of gritty social realism.
As he takes office, Biden might well wish that battling aliens with stirring speeches and Quaid by his side was the only major difficulty that he faces. While it would be ungenerous not to wish him well in his efforts, one can only hope that he is allowed time to watch the cinematic and televisual portrayals of some of his forerunners, and to learn some valuable lessons in presentation, courage and dignity from them, even as the ever-present orange glow of his predecessor will take a considerable time to vanish from the White House.
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