Like “Batman v. Superman,” this presidential campaign has two key players that should make it a Hollywood dream come true.
The nonpolitician in the White House and the first female president are both staples of political film and television, enduring symbols of a deep-held desire to see a figure of democratic idealism and everyday common sense straighten out the byzantine shenanigans of our nation’s capital.
On paper, the prospect of both making their way to November is fraught with dramatic possibilities: “Dave” by way of “Commander in Chief,” “Mr. Smith” meets “Madam Secretary,” and they are both on the hustings.
In reality, we have the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
With his plans for walls, international smack-downs, increased deportation and a vaguely defined return to America “winning,” Trump is as far from the common-touch humanity imagined by films like “Dave,” “Head of State” or “Man of the Year” as he could get without calling for an actual coup d'état. He is not a humble regular guy, nor does he claim to be.
Clinton, meanwhile, is not bogged down by the issues faced by fictional female leaders: that she isn’t experienced enough or isn’t tough enough to make the big calls, that she’ll be distracted when her kid breaks an arm or gets into trouble at school. Neither is she victim to hostile sexual attacks by conservative opponents like those faced by the vice presidential nominee of “The Contender.”
Instead it’s Clinton’s wide-ranging experience and her lack of maternal softness that draws the criticism. She is plagued by the appearance of being smart to the point of smug; far from threatening to turn the American government into some sort of cooperative collective, she is seen by some as too Business as Usual. Even the historic nature of her potential election is divisive, especially among young women who don’t want to feel pressured by history.
To be fair, few of our more idealized versions of leadership are ever seen campaigning; Hollywood leaves the grim realities of getting and staying in office to the Francis Underwoods (“House of Cards”) and Fitzgerald Grants (“Scandal”) of the world. The citizen politician ideal usually comes courtesy of deus ex machina.
Chris Rock campaigns in “Head of State” but only after his party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates die; in “Man of the Year,” Robin Williams’ satirical talk show host becomes a viable candidate via computer glitch. Since neither expects to win, each is free from the fetters of realpolitik.
Most of the female presidents were vice presidents who took office after a shocking death, and even “Mr. Smith” went to Washington as the result of a coin toss, not an election. And Kevin Kline’s “Dave” was a part-time presidential impersonator who winds up a fill-in for the real thing.
Hillary Clinton does not fit the typical female leader template in part because she is not beset by career ambivalence.
Still, even taking the demands of narrative expediency into consideration, there’s a remarkably wide gap between repeated fiction and current fact.
Trump’s blunt speech and billionaire status has gained him many supporters who admire both his refusal to be “politically correct” and his insistence that, as a rich man, he is beholden to no one.
But his penchant for personal insult and repeated vows to create a federal government so big and intrusive it can literally wall off another country while deporting millions of U.S. residents is at complete odds, both politically and emotionally, with the tolerance and Good Samaritan populism we inevitably celebrate in our fictitious presidents.
Openly hostile to the press, political opponents, the disenfranchised and other nations, Trump speaks to those Americans angry at a government they feel ignores their needs and/or pussyfoots around certain issues. His idea of American greatness is unapologetically a model of international comparison — a desire to be the dominant nation — rather than the more essential, often spiritual grandeur sought by the more humanist, and often liberal, outlier presidents beloved by Hollywood.
Indeed, if Trump were a figure in a movie or television series, he’d be the antagonist, not the protagonist. More the bullying president in, say, “Love Actually” — who stands in frozen rage while Hugh Grant’s nice-guy prime minister sticks up for a nation defined by Shakespeare and David Beckham’s left foot — than “Dave” with his focus on homeless shelters and jobs programs.
For weeks, President Obama kept quiet as the Donald helped fuel “birther” conspiracy theories.
“He doesn’t have a birth certificate,” Trump told “Good Morning America” in spring 2011. “He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate -- maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim, I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that. Or, he may not have one.” Trump also told a tea party rally that Obama “almost certainly will go down as the worst president in the history of the United States.”
But Obama seemed to get the last laugh when, right after releasing his long-form birth certificate, he lampooned Trump at the White House correspondents’ dinner. “Now he can get to focusing on the issues that matter,” the president said. “Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?” Zing!
But that didn’t quiet Trump. The Donald fired back during Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign with a “big announcement” goading Obama to release his college transcripts the October before the election so that he would donate $5 million to charity. Turns out the offer was one the president could easily refuse.
OK, so it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Hello, Newman,” the greeting the fictional
Yet should one cross Trump, don’t expect a shrug and a handshake. Instead, Seinfeld received a rant after the comedian backed out of a charity benefit hosted by one of Trump’s sons, supposedly because of the birther issue. Seinfeld’s camp has been relatively quiet, but Trump was quoted as taking a swing at Seinfeld’s TV credits.
No, not the beloved “Seinfeld,” but instead the unscripted show
They exchanged barbed words in November 2010 over the project with Trump saying, “I like the developer, but it’s always very tough to make something successful at the high-end level with a public school in the building.” Gehry said that Trump was just holding a grudge ever since he turned down working on one of his projects, adding, “I don’t like his hairdo anyway.”
Touché, Frank. Touché. (Getty Images)
The pop star supposedly backed out of a Trump event due to a lingering battle with bronchitis. Yet the next day Rihanna performed in Los Angeles at the NBA All-Star Game. Trump wasn’t too hard on Rihanna, but he was quoted in the Palm Beach Post: “I thought [the cancellation] was insulting to everyone. But for Rihanna to go to the All-Star Game and perform after she told us she was sick, that is just a lack of respect.” (Getty Images)
It may have started when
“I’ll NEVER GO TO MACY’S AGAIN!” Cher tweeted. “I didn’t know they sold Donald Trump’s Line! If they don’t care that they sell products from a LOUDMOUTH.”
But Trump didn’t take the tirade sitting down, firing back about the singer’s surgical procedures.
“Cher-- I don’t wear a ‘rug'--it’s mine. And I promise not to talk about your massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.” (Getty Images / Los Angeles Times)
Though she has certainly benefited from the growing number of fictional female leaders on television and in film, Clinton is just as many miles away from her cinematic counterparts as Trump.
Fictitious female leaders are often initially reluctant — Geena Davis’ “Commander in Chief” was dragged out of academe to become vice president and almost agrees to resign when her president dies — and all are preoccupied by family. In “24,” Cherry Jones’ Allison Taylor was actually elected president, but the woman couldn’t make a move without one family member or another dragging her down. At the end of one season she divorced, at the end of the next, she resigned.
With one grown daughter and an enduring marriage to a man who would like nothing more than to move back into the White House, Clinton has none of these concerns. Or, for that matter, any of those attractions. Try as she might to portray herself as a doting grandmother, she’s no “who, me?” Everywoman. She’s a lifer, a career politician and public servant.
Far from being reluctant about assuming power, Clinton has been immersed in presidential politics, one way or another, for most of her adult life. (In fact, the first episode of “Commander in Chief” includes a rather sniffy list of the many ways in which Clinton overreached as first lady.) She does not propose to act from her gut, she proposes to act from her brain and her years of experience. She is such an insider that Bernie Sanders, a man who has also been a politician for most of his life and in Congress for 25 years, is able to seem like the new guy with the fresh ideas.
If this were a scripted drama (or if her campaign had any sense of whimsy), Clinton would have taken that comparison and run with it. Who doesn’t love Hermione? When dark outside forces threatened to destroy Harry and the wizarding world, it was Hermione who did the reading, learned the spells, packed the necessary items and figured out what actually had to be done to save the world. Clinton should have shown up at her next event in full Gryffindor regalia.
Heaven knows Trump would have. The minute someone compares Donald Trump to any J.K. Rowling hero, he’ll pull out a wand and say “accio presidency.”
Then he’ll explain why Hogwarts needs an additional moat and all the Muggles really do have to go.