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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Barack to the future

One of Jon Stewart’s best lines when he hosted the Academy Awards telecast last February was about Barack Obama. He pointed out that the Democratic candidate’s possible election could mess up a standard bit of Hollywood movie shorthand. Pointing out that there had already been a number of African-American presidents on our movie screens, Stewart exclaimed, “How else will we know it’s the future?”

The line was funny because it got at a real truth. Casting Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haysbert to play the U.S. president in a movie or on a television show has often been a way, without the need for further exposition, of establishing that we are in the future but not a particularly distant future. The shorthand worked because, in the real world, there has yet to be an African-American president, but most of us have been expecting that there would be one eventually.

Interestingly, there seem to have been far fewer female presidents gracing our screens over the years—even though that would be an equally efficient way of conveying the notion of the near future. (Well, sometime in the future anyway.) Offhand, the only examples I can think of are the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, in which a befuddled Fred MacMurray tried to cope with playing second fiddle to his chief executive wife Polly Bergen, and the short-lived TV series Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis. And Glenn Close did play a vice-president who became acting president in Air Force One. Perhaps, if Obama wins in November, we will start seeing more female presidents in movies in order to let us know that it is the future.

The cinematic racial barrier for the White House was officially broken in 1972 with Joseph Sargent’s movie The Man. Penned by Rod Serling from a novel by Irving Wallace, it told the story of an African-American senator (played by James Earl Jones, the future voice of Darth Vader) becoming president as a result of a freak accident and how this upset the established Washington power structure. The era when black movie presidents would become unremarkable, if not routine, was still some years away.

A couple of months ago, The Australian published a fairly complete survey of presidents portrayed in the movies, written by Eddie Cockrell, an American transplant Down Under. He noted that, while Hollywood had a black senator becoming president 36 years ago, there has never been a former POW as president. The nearest big screen harbinger he could find for John McCain was Bill Pullman’s former fighter pilot—who wound up jumping into the cockpit for one more gig, to fight space aliens—in Independence Day. Cockrell’s roster of other memorable commanders-in-chief given to us by Hollywood included Christopher Jones’s teenage president (Wild in the Streets) who instituted mandatory retirement at 30 and LSD rehabilitation at 35; Harrison Ford’s airborn exec (Air Force One), who singlehandedly foiled a terrorist hijacking; Henry Fonda’s president-playing-God (Fail-Safe), who dropped a nuclear bomb on New York City to save the planet; Kevin Kline’s presidential look-alike (Dave), who stepped into the White House without getting elected and did a much better job than the elected guy; and Alan Alda’s unpopular president (Canadian Bacon, a rare fictional movie from Michael Moore) who bolsters his ratings by declaring war on the U.S.’s northern neighbor. More recent movie presidents have included Dennis Quaid, as a chief executive doing a stint as a guest judge on a TV reality show in American Dreamz, Robin Williams as a comedian elected president in Man of the Year, and William Hurt as an apparent assassination target in Vantage Point.

In his article, Cockrell notes that there is “little doubt Henry Fonda is the king of speculative US political shenanigans,” citing his performances Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent, Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Best Man and Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe. In the first he was a controversial nominee for Secretary of State in the administration of Franchot Tone who, as Cockrell notes, had played a presidential adviser in Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel Over the White House way back in 1933. In The Best Man, based on a play by Gore Vidal, Fonda was an intellectual presidential candidate with a sexual indiscretion in his past. And in Fail-Safe, he was the chief executive who painfully had to weigh and deliver the lives of millions.

Cockrell also suggested that either Kisses for My President or The Man could obtain cult status, depending on who got the Democratic nomination (which was not yet decided at the time the article was published), similar to the resurgence of interest in Ronald Reagan’s movies during his time in the Oval Office. Cockrell also noted the irony that, in The Man, Jones’s character ascends to the presidency from being president pro tem of the Senate, when that office today is held by a former Ku Klux Klan member, Robert Byrd, who supports Barack Obama.

So, does the saliently possible election of an African-American mean that we are about to, at long last, enter the future? Needless to say, the future does not always follow Hollywood’s script. Witness, for example, the movies Nineteen Eighty-Four and 2001. I have to say, all politics aside, Obama’s candidacy fills me simultaneously with hope and a bit of fear. If he wins, I do not delude myself that America’s racial divide will be healed in one fell swoop. (A closing gap in the standards of living of the various ethnic communities will be a better indication of that.) But it will be a supreme feel-good moment for much of the country. But if he loses, I worry that, much like a sports team that finishes second in a national championship, his accomplishment will not be seen for the milestone that it is but will be construed as a rebuke to ten percent of the population. (Conservative columnist George Will has written convincingly that a surer sign of racial equality in baseball management came not in 1975 when Frank Robinson was hired by the Cleveland Indians as the first African-American major league manager but two years later when he was fired—because that meant he was being treated like everyone else who ever held the position.)

The risk of an unfortunate backlash if Obama loses is especially high if he comes to be considered the winner before the election is actually held. And there are already signs of this in some of his coverage. Never mind the American media, the European press is particularly bad about wearing blinders when viewing American politics. The main excitement in Ireland at the moment is that another of Obama’s Irish ancestors has been pinpointed. As one newspaper noted pointedly, no one is spending any time trying to find John McCain’s Irish ancestors. And when the local Galway radio station reported on Obama’s speech in Berlin, he was referred to matter-of-factly as “the man expected to be the next president of the United States,” as if the deal were all done and dusted and the election was a mere formality. Obviously, the reporter had not taken a look at the latest polling trends. The stage seems to be set, as with the last two presidential elections, for portraying America’s electoral system as being on a par with Zimbabwe’s. There is no doubt that, if Europeans could vote in U.S. elections, Obama would win in a heartbeat. But then, as one late-night wag noted, these are the same people who think that David Hasselhoff is the greatest star ever.

And about that Berlin speech. When I heard Obama exhort, “People of Berlin! People of the world! This is our moment. This is our time,” I got an uneasy sense of déjà vu, and I couldn’t figure out why. I thought for a moment that he had lifted some lyrics from the musical Cabaret. But, no, with the help of the internet, it finally came to me. U2’s Bono used almost exactly the same words (“This is our moment. This is our time. This is our chance. To stand up for what’s right”) at the Live 8 Concert in London in 2005. When people refer to Obama as “a rock star,” they just may have a point, at least rhetorically. But there is a reason why real rock stars rarely get elected to important political office. To help understand why, go dig up an op-ed piece by Cameroonian writer Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme, published in The New York Times on July 15, 2005. As he explained, the Live 8 stars should have been promoting democracy for Africa—not debt relief, as advocated by Bono and his friends. The latter has the unfortunate result of propping up an array of dictatorships, without providing long-lasting benefit to ordinary citizens. Democracy and liberal markets have been the most reliable way of raising overall standards of living.

Anyway, our memory of the Live 8 concerts tends to be obscured, unfortunately, by subsequent events. Five days after they were held, London was rocked by terrorist bombs, killing 56, including the four bombers.

-S.L., 7 August 2008

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