As early as March, The New York Times predicted that the 2016 Presidential Election would feature unprecedented unfavorability of the presumptive candidates of each of America’s two major political parties. Since then, well, not much needs to be rehashed – for the first time in many, many election cycles, those parties have brought forth candidates who are viewed negatively by a majority of the populace, with disdain creeping from within even their respective parties.
But you can read sad, disheartening news like that anywhere. Instead of investigating an American political state that many of the governed find less than ideal, allow us to distract you, to provide you with a list of the best and worst fictional politicians – from movies and television. Politicos you would either (we think) be happy to vote for, and some that make you thankful for what we do have.
Each of these politicians is a character in a television show or film. Some of them are roughly related to historical figures, others are completely original creations, but they’re all fictional characters. The first ten would most likely get our vote in a real race – at least, we wouldn’t want to move if they were elected president. The latter ten, well, we’d be renting a U-Haul pretty quickly.
These are the Ten Best (and Ten Worst) Fictional Politicians of All Time.
10. (Best) Andrew Shepard – The American President
Your support at the booth for Andrew Shepard (Michael Douglas) would be largely dependent on how you feel about a Head of State who is comfortable mixing the politics of lawmaking with the mechanics of romantic courtship.
Shepard, the President in The American President, is in large part a Democratic ideal brought to life, much like another creation of the film’s screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin), The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett. At the beginning of the film, Shepard enjoys a high approval rating but must pass a lip-servicey crime bill before the election to ensure himself a second term. He does this by leveraging his bill against a much more substantial environmental bill being championed by a lobbyist (Annette Benning), who later becomes Shepard’s love interest.
The intersection of the vote-wrangling and the wooing processes is messy, and ethically gray. In the end though, Shepard emerges as a committed idealist, forgoing the more politically savvy but hollow option (the crime bill), in favor of the less popular but more effective option (the environmental bill). The audience is meant to understand this choice as a moral one, and because he made it, Shepard gets the girl after all.
9. (Best) Thomas Whitmore – Independence Day
Allow us to take this liberty – we are discussing Thomas Whitmore as though Independence Day: Resurgence never happened. Not because Whitmore’s actions in the sequel damage his legacy. If anything, it’s because the sequel itself damages his legacy. We just prefer to remember the strapping, vital Whitmore from 1996, the halcyon days of original summer blockbusters, rather than the grizzled, reanimated Whitmore of 2016. On board? Good.
Thomas Whitmore is what you might call a wartime president. We can’t know much about his policies as a governor, largely because the events of Independence Day render those completely irrelevant. In fact, Whitmore’s legacy as a military operator isn’t even that shining. He was late delivering an evacuation order, costing many millions of lives because of indecision. He was also – more forgivably – unable to decide on the use of nuclear power, even after the display of mass destruction by invading aliens.
That’s the not-so-good. Here’s the great: that speech. When the chips were down, Whitmore was able to boost morale one last time with one of the all-time great movie speeches. What’s more, he was about to pilot a fighter jet himself in the resistance effort. Whitmore wasn’t hiding in the bunker, preserving his own safety. He was on the front line, risking everything. He may or may not have been a great president, we don’t know for sure. But at the most important time, he was a great leader.
8. (Best) James Marshall – Air Force One
What we know about James Marshall, President, is next to nothing. We know that on a transatlantic flight on Air Force One, the plane is overrun by terrorists and that Marshall – using only his guile and two hands – manages to retake the plane by force and pilot it to safety, all while maintaining an uncompromising foreign relations posture in the face of great danger. We don’t really know what kind of leader Marshall is, or about his approval rating at home. Do we really need to though? Air Force One is essentially what it would look like if an angrier Han Solo were President of the United States. And you’re lying if you wouldn’t vote for an angry Han Solo in November.
James Marshall is an action hero president, not unlike Thomas Whitmore. These are principled and capable men, who coolly commit violence in defense of their nation. There is a prevailing idea that candidates who are smoother, cooler, or better looking are always at an advantage. That old idiom about voting for someone that would be fun to have a beer with is built around a grain of truth. And James Marshall is the ultimate extension of that idea. It’s Harrison Ford, after all.
7. (Best) David Palmer – 24
At the risk of engaging in too much armchair pop psychology, there can’t be any show more emblematic of America’s psyche in the years directly following 9/11 than 24. It’s easy to forget now, but the plots of that show were bonkers: America was under attack constantly, with numerous assassination attempts on the fictional president, plots to detonate nukes on American soil, political coups, and more assassinations. 24 is an artistic document of a nation under siege from foreign powers, foreign powers that certainly would have achieved complete victory if not for Jack Bauer.And if Bauer was the Counter Terrorism Agent that America needed in the early 21st century, David Palmer was the President that America needed.
For most of the time we see Palmer, he is beset on all sides by personal and political treachery. He must act in defense of his own life and of his country’s safety, all while navigating the shifting ground beneath him. He is swiftly decisive, principled, and calming. David Palmer, above all, appears trustworthy. It might be his actions, or it might simply be the soothing baritone that would eventually make actor Dennis Haysbert all that All State money.
6. (Best) Jefferson Smith – Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an early cinematic example of frustration with the status quo, and the idea that an overmatched idealist has the power to change things. In the film, Jefferson Smith is handpicked to fill a United States Senate vacancy, mostly because the films morally bankrupt kingmakers view his naïveté as both a tool of endearment and a low barrier for manipulation.
Smith goes to Washington with big ideas and not much of a clue how to achieve them. Predictably, he is disheartened and almost overrun by the corruption surrounding him in the Senate. Eventually, his optimism and drive win Smith enough allies to help him achieve some modicum of success.
Jefferson Smith, despite being a character from 1939, would be very fitting in 2016. In a political landscape often framed as “Wall Street vs. Main Street”, with much of the population wary of political insiders, Jefferson Smith is an embodiment of the outsider’s potential; the idea that an uncorrupted and morally driven outsider could topple a broken system. That is a very apt idea for this particular election, and probably for every election.
5. (Best) Jackson Evans – The Contender
Jackson Evans, from The Contender (2000), is a president who attempts to cement his legacy by appointing a female Vice President, thus breaking the Glass ceiling. We have come a long way in sixteen years, and that should probably be accounted for here. Evans was a heroic protagonist in the year 2000. In 2016, more discerning and active audiences might wonder why a man is needed to help women advance their status in the first place. Fair point.
Still, though the premise of the film might be something like “mansplaining” on steroids, Evans is never anything other than an honorable and earnest presence. He is a smart operator, besting his smarmy political rival (played by Gary Oldman), and achieving his goal of nominating Laine Hanson, his choice for Vice President.
Evans is smartly and efficiently doing what he views as best for the country; indeed, he is following what he views as a moral imperative. The male savior construct may seem… dated in 2016, but don’t hold that against Jackson Evans.
4. (Best) Mackenzie Allen – Commander in Chief
Commander in Chief followed Mackenzie Allen, the first (fictional) female President of the United States. Allen begins the show as a popular and successful Vice President who take the Oval Office job after the sitting president dies unexpectedly. Interestingly, Commander in Chief was created by Rod Lurie, who directed The Contender. Commander in Chief differs from its spiritual predecessor, though, as Mackenzie Allen ascends to the office of President more through her own merit than her counterpart in The Contender did (still needed a timely death though).
Allen is a ridiculously qualified President. In show canon, she is a former Congresswoman, University Chancellor, lawyer, and Nobel Prize winner. She is a moderate Republican, attached to a presidential ticket to bridge a gender gap and an idealogical gap in the voting bloc.
3. (Best) Tom Beck – Deep Impact
To be completely honest, this entry is probably more of an endorsement for President Morgan Freeman than it is for President Tom Beck.
Here’s why: Tom Beck really doesn’t do much. The fact is, there isn’t much to do. In Deep Impact, a gigantic comet is headed for earth. If it hits earth, everybody dies. If it doesn’t (meaning astronauts successfully altered its course with nuclear explosions), they don’t. That’s really it. Beck really only needs to prepare everyone for the worst, and wait to see if he will die alongside the rest of the human race.
Which is why Morgan Freeman was perfect for the role. In a hypothetical extinction level situation, with humanity staring down oblivious, Freeman would be the perfect voice to guide you calmly into the long night. His level, calming disposition would prevent mass hysteria — in as much as it could be prevented — and maintain a level of hope while delivering an unflinching prediction of reality.
2. (Best) Leslie Knope – Parks and Recreation
All we want, and this is the very least, is that our politicians stand for something. Career operators, politicking in preservation of their own career, are usually widely disdained. Conviction sells.
Well, nobody on this list has stronger conviction than Leslie Knope. That is not an overstatement at all. On Parks and Recreation Knope is a lifelong resident of Pawnee, a small town in Indiana where she serves as deputy of the show’s titular public works department. The show plays Knope’s ambition for laughs – she is a low level bureaucrat in a Podunk town with pictures of Nancy Pelosi and Janet Reno on her walls. And it is funny. But the show doesn’t allow Leslie’s naked ambition overshadow her equally indomitable spirit of public service. This is an official who clearly takes her role as “servant” seriously, and cares deeply about the quality of life in her district.
Countless times throughout Parks, Leslie sidelines her personal life in favor of her work, and her community. She is dedicated, ambitious, intelligent, and optimistic. Leslie Knope would get our vote at any level.
1. (Best) Jed Bartlet – The West Wing
Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet, PhD, is the best fictional President of all time. That may be a grating fact to audiences that disdainfully understand (correctly) that Bartlet is both an amalgam of real-life Democratic Presidents past and a personification of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s dogged liberal idealism. But it’s still true. No president is portrayed as consistently effective, intelligent, and in the right as Jed Bartlet.
Bartlet is a Northeast elitist. The show doesn’t try to cushion that. He is a New Hampshire Governor, Notre Dame graduate, Nobel-prize-winning economist and author. He is unabashedly progressive and proudly intellectual.
The show frames Bartlet as struggling to relate to voting segments who prefer folksier candidates. It’s entirely likely that the Bartlet character also comes across as divisive to television audiences who also prefer folksier politicians. Still, it is impossible not to root for Jed when he throws hate mongering religious groups out of his white house, or tells off divisive radio personalities. Because, for all of Bartlet’s less relatable qualities, the show almost always frames him as morally correct. Incorruptible even. There is the obvious exception of Bartlet having hid his medical history, but even that is presented to West Wing audiences as being in the service of the greater good.
10. (Worst) Tywin Lannister – Game of Thrones
Jumping straight from first to worst, Tywin Lannister is, quite obviously, not a politician that exists in a world like ours. There is no easy analog between Tywin and our reality. Still, he is a politician’s politician. Tywin was the most powerful and feared man in Westeros for four seasons, and he did most of his fighting from behind a desk with a pen and a pool of ink. He has a ferocious will, an utter lack of morality, and a ridiculous intellect, one that left him nearly unmatched as a schemer in all of the Game of Thrones universe.
All of that might actually make Tywin one of the “best” fictional politicians, depending on your definition (and your moral character). But this is the thing: Tywin Lannister would only be the best if your last name was Lannister as well, and even then, maybe not. If you were anyone else in the universe who may either be a threat to – or, conversely, of use to – Tywin, your experience with him was unlikely to be a pleasant one.
9. (Worst) Coriolanus Snow – The Hunger Games Trilogy
Coriolanus Snow (played on screen by Donald Sutherland) is the dictator and antagonist in The Hunger Games trilogy. He is comically evil; we don’t know much about Snow, his rise, or his motivations – other than maintaining the Status Quo. To do so, he subdues the citizens of Panem outside of the Capitol by force, intimidating the masses and assassinating his opponents.
President Snow at one point, when trying to convince Katniss Everdeen that he did not murder a large number of children, utters the phrase “We both know I’m not above killing children, but I’m not wasteful.” Meaning, his propensity for killing kids should be overlooked, if not mitigated by his frugality in doing so. That’s how bad Coriolanus Snow is.
If that’s not enough, Snow also tortured his enemies and did things like selling people into prostitution to the wealthy Capitol dwellers. Oh, and of course, he oversees an annual competition featuring children murdering each other. The Hunger Games were dark as hell.
8. (Worst) Selina Meyer – Veep
Selina Meyer is the corrupted corporeal form of politics incarnate. He character on Veep stands for literally nothing, other than her own professional advancement. It’s important to note that none of the other characters on Veep differ from Meyer in that regard, and that Meyer sits atop that entire mountain of vapid careerism.
Veep makes the dark, pointless mechanics of politics into hilarious theater, as Meyer and her cohorts stumble offensively through Washington, covering their own backsides along the way. Selina Meyer would be an affront to the real-life office of President, as she is plainly more interested in retaining the responsibility than fulfilling it. The extent of her ethical bankruptcy makes Veep one of the most consistently funny shows on television.
Meyer is not only devoid of qualification for the office of president, she is horrible to those around her. She is perpetually abusive of her lapdog assistants and harried staffers, and makes her own daughter book appointments to see her. Selina Meyer: hilarious television character, horrible person, atrocious president.
7. (Worst) Jack Stanton – Primary Colors
It is sincerely not our intention to drag real-life politics into what is supposed to be a light, trivial distraction from real life. That doesn’t change the fact that Jack Stanton would be an awful president, even if Primary Colors was inspired by Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, and Jack Stanton is clearly based aesthetically on Clinton himself.
Primary Colors is not a dramatic retelling, or a representation of a true story. It is an entirely fictional narrative that is littered with signposts from real life, which is different. So, to be clear, this entry: about Jack Stanton, not Bill Clinton.
Now, onto Stanton. The Primary Colors protagonist shares a poisonous quality with many other bad politicians on this list: unchecked ambition. Stanton is willing do whatever it takes – silencing victims of his womanizing, waging a negative, dirty campaign, destroying the lives of people around him, and blurring the lines of legality – to reach the office of President. The film is a condemnation of the essence of politics and ambition, and Stanton is the walking dark side of politics.
6. (Worst) Clay Davis – The Wire
Fictional politicians are often depicted as corrupted, not by their own wants and needs, but by the system. In many ways, characters like Selina Meyer and Jack Stanton are stand ins for the institution of government as a whole. Clay Davis is that, but also so much more.
Clay Davis is the bad guy at the top of The Wire’s dense polemic pyramid of urban decay. In a show with a ridiculously large cast of characters that are almost all both good and bad, Davis shines as an example of pure corruption. In fact, many of the show’s conventionally antagonistic archetypes – drug dealers, gangsters, corrupt cops, spineless politicians – are in one way or another victims of men like Davis, who profit off the suffering that they help architect.
Clay Davis is a Maryland State Senator, the highest elected office depicted in the show. He is plainly corrupt, protecting criminals in exchange for cash, rigging elections, and steamrolling naïve victims who make the mistake of trusting him. Clay Davis is despicable, and if The Wire is an editorial condemnation of the corrupting power of institutions, Clay Davis is the face of those institutions.
5. (Worst) Frank Underwood – House of Cards
Frank Underwood is comically evil. Calling him an antihero is a disservice to real antiheroes who maintain a residue of sympathy because of their circumstances. Underwood wasn’t forced into his crooked worldview by birth or misfortune. He is driven solely by his ambition. Honestly, Frank Underwood isn’t even really a person. He is just will, ambition brought to life.
He is married to a woman who doesn’t love him in (any conventional sense), and who he doesn’t love (in any conventional sense). They are together out of a sense of mutual ambition and gain. He breaks the vows of that marriage with a reporter (with his wife’s consent), who he uses for personal gain and then MURDERS. Underwood would break those vows again – late in House of Cards, he exhibits mutual feelings with a male secret service agent and invites said agent into his marital bed, alongside his wife. The only thing Frank stands for is Frank. He does what he wants, when he wants.
4. (Worst) James Dale – Mars Attacks!
James Dale isn’t evil, like some of the other bad politicians on this list. He is just ineffectual, which might be worst. Dale must accept the same fate of any leader who is at the helm when awful things happen – he might not be at fault, but the fact of the matter remains that this is what he’ll be remembered for.
During James Dale’s watch, Martians successfully attacked earth, murdered the entire United States government, defaced our monuments, and destroyed our cities. If that makes Dale sympathetic to you, please consider an entry from our “Best” list – Thomas Whitmore, who successfully quelled his respective alien invasion.
In Mars Attacks!, Dale doesn’t do much of anything, except survive for a while, until he doesn’t. He clearly wants the attack to stop, he just isn’t capable of making the attack stop – which would have obviously been the desirable outcome. Dale might not belong among the ranks of Frank Underwood and Clay Davis, but he’s certainly knocking at the door.
3. (Worst) Merkin Muffley – Dr. Strangelove
Merkin Muffley follows in the bumbling footsteps of James Dale, as a man overmatched on all sides. Dr. Strangelove is a comedy, featuring a rogue American General who decides to drop a bomb on the Soviet Union, inadvertently triggering a doomsday device that ends the world.
If anything, Muffley seems determined not to step on any toes, even in the face of grave danger. He cushions phone calls to the Soviet leader with phrases like “He went and did a silly thing”, referencing his operative who decided to effectively end the world. He is outmatched by his joint chiefs, and too dedicated to niceties and non-confrontation even when the situation calls for it. Muffley is a leader who can’t see the whole board – his sights are set too low and he’s simply too reluctant to match the urgency of the situation.
2. (Worst) Mike Morris – The Ides of March
The Ides of March is a political film about the noxious nature of politics. Ryan Gosling plays a junior campaign manager, Stephen Meyers, to Mike Morris (George Clooney), a rising star in his party and presidential candidate. Meyers is eventually fired from the Morris campaign after meeting with Morris’ opponent in secret. Eventually, Gosling architects a deal to get himself rehired, his old boss fired, and Morris elected. Gosling’s character is not especially pristine.
But Morris is even worse. Meyers was able to leverage Morris using the latter’s chief indiscretion – that he impregnated a staff member from his campaign (who was dating Meyers, incidentally), who got an abortion, was fired from her post, and eventually committed suicide.
In The Ides of March, the idea is pretty much that politics will eventually stain anyone who tries to compete, even the most idyllic people. One character essentially spells that out in a monologue. The film is ostensibly about Stephen Meyer’s descent into darkness, but Mike Morris is already there waiting for him when the movie begins.
1. (The Worst) Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Comacho – Idiocracy
Idiocracy, seen by a tragically small audience in theaters, takes place in a dystopian America. Luke Wilson plays an Army Corporal who is put into cryo-sleep as part of an experiment and forgotten about. The future America he wakes up in is a disaster – all infrastructure has crumbled, and American citizens have devolved into ridiculously stupid beings. They speak a dumbed-down version of English, the entire culture has been commercialized by corporations, there is a massive food shortage, and disorder runs rampant. The President ruling over all of this with a child’s temperament and a disastrous level of ignorance is Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Comacho, played by Terry Crews. Crews puts Luke Wilson (Joe) in charge of fixing all of America’s problems in a week.
Joe eventually does so, but not before being wrongfully imprisoned for crashing “Brawndo” (the film’s ubiquitous sports drink) stock, and being subjected to reality TV punishment.
Camacho is the worst fictional politician of all time. He is so incompetent that he is essentially an agent of chaos. You would be better off with a schemer like Frank Underwood or Clay Davis leading your nation than a hulking man with a child’s intellect and a loose trigger finger.
Did we forget a prime candidate for best or worst fictional politician? Sound off in the comments.