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Real lessons from fake presidents

By Patrick Day, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

That great experiment in federal, republic government known as the United States is largely considered a work in progress. With each new president, citizens and historians learn a bit more about its shortcomings and advantages and as every administration ends, we come together and ask ourselves: What have we learned and how can we apply that moving forward?

The Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency taught us how to flex our national might on the world stage, while the George W. Bush era has been widely hailed as a cautionary case against too much arrogance. Our history entails 43 presidents, which means 43 lessons. But Americans don’t read history, or so the conventional wisdom goes; they watch TV and go to the movies. We see presidents there, but that doesn’t count, right?

Actually, we learn from our fictional presidents. They’re made up, sure, but the movies are a font of smart information — such as what to do in a zombie attack. Here are lessons learned from the most effective fake presidencies in recent memory. (Al Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) on ‘Battlestar Galactica’

Leadership style: Understated and cooly pragmatic

Pivotal moment: Attempted to throw an election in her favor. When confronted with evidence of her misdeeds, Roslin chose to step aside rather than threaten the future stability of the government. Also fought for human rights in the face of a threatened military dictatorship.

Inspirational quote: “It’s not smart. It’s politics.”

Lesson learned: Not even near-extinction of humanity by a hostile robot fleet is a good enough reason for the executive branch to ignore checks and balances. (Justin Stephens / Sci-Fi Channel)
President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) on ’24'

Leadership style: Dithering and weak, though that was later revealed to be a calculated front to avoid suspicion of involvement in a traitorous conspiracy.

Pivotal moment: Striking his wife, Martha (Jean Smart), and admitting his complicity in the assassination of a previous president, all while being secretly recorded.

Inspirational quote: “Martha, do you realize how traumatic this would be for the country if people were to find out?”

Lesson learned: Never underestimate the person in the Oval Office, no matter how dumb or ineffectual he or she may appear to be on the surface. (Kelsey McNeal / Associated Press)
The President (E.G. Marshall) in “Superman II”

Leadership style: Scared spinelessness

Pivotal moment: Kneeling in abdication before super-powered Kryptonian criminal General Zod (Terence Stamp).

Inspirational quote: “What I do now, I do for the sake of the people of Earth. But there is one man on this planet who will NEVER kneel before you.”

Lesson learned: Belief in a leader’s managerial skills or mastery of the issues is no indication of how they’ll react when faced by three super-villains bent on world domination. (Warner Bros.)
President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) in ‘Independence Day’

Leadership style: Gung-ho and inspirational

Pivotal moment: Getting into the cockpit himself and leading a U.S. fighter jet attack on the invading alien attack ship.

Inspirational quote: “We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “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!”

Lesson learned: Combat experience is a plus in a time of war. (Melissa Moseley / 20th Century Fox)
President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) in ‘Deep Impact’

Leadership style: Stoic determination

Pivotal moment: Witnessing the large-scale destruction of the United States after a comet-strike and still managing to show up at the office, despite most of Washington being destroyed.

Inspirational quote: “Cities fall, but they are rebuilt. Heroes die, but they are remembered.”

Lesson learned: A soothing, baritone voice can make any crisis, no matter how unimaginable, seem manageable. (Myles Aronowitz / DreamWorks)
President Bill Mitchell and look-alike Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) in ‘Dave

Leadership style: Common-man decency

Pivotal moment: Admitting complicity in a presidential scandal, then faking a stroke on national TV.

Inspirational quote: “I don’t want to tell some 8-year-old kid he’s gotta sleep in the street because we want people to feel better about their car. Do you want to tell them that?”

Lesson learned: Deceiving the American public is A-OK so long as we never find out and the deception turns out all right in the end. (Francois Duhamel / Warner Bros.)
President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) in ‘Air Force One’

Leadership style: Ranging from world-weary resolution to bulldog attacker.

Pivotal moment: Knocking a terrorist off the presidential jumbo jet by opening his parachute and letting him strangle to death.

Inspirational quote: “Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right. Atrocity and terror are not political weapons. And to those who would use them, your day is over. We will never negotiate. We will no longer tolerate and we will no longer be afraid. It’s your turn to be afraid.” Also: “GET OFF MY PLANE!”

Lesson learned: All presidents should have basic hand-to-hand combat and weapons training. (Claudette Barius / Columbia / TriStar)
President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in ‘Commander in Chief’

Leadership style: Ambitious idealism

Pivotal moment: Resisting pressure to give up the vice president’s office so that the speaker of the house would be next in line for the soon-to-be-vacant presidency.

Inspriational quote: “I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to take the oath of office. I’m going to run this government ... and if some Islamic nations can’t tolerate a female president, then I promise you ... it will be more their problem than mine!”

Lesson learned: Being president is hard, being a mother is harder, but surviving on network TV is the hardest job of all. (Kent Eanes / ABC)
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in ‘The American President’

Leadership style: Genial bemusement

Pivotal moment: Changing his administration’s position on handguns to a ban he believes in just moments before the State of the Union is about to begin.

Inspirational quote: “You want to claim this land as the ‘land of the free’? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free.’ ”

Lesson learned: Having a non-married president can become quite a distraction over time. (Castle Rock Entertainment)