The Celluloid Presidency: The Best, Worst, and Mixed Bags

Historians love to assemble rankings of America’s best and worst presidents. It’s the history nerd equivalent of trying to come up with the best NBA player or the greatest superhero. Of course, you have the perennial favorites at the top (Abe Lincoln is to the American presidency what Michael Jordan is to hoops or Batman is to ass-kicking), but below the A-list there’s a lot of debate about who was great, who was merely mediocre, and who was flat-out horrible.

What about our fictional commanders in chief, though? Here’s brief salute to those who have answered the call to civic duty in ways that were inspiring, horrifying, and completely ridiculous.

Warning: All manner of White House secrets are revealed in the post that follows. ***SPOILERS ABOUND! (In other words, if you’re not up to date on Scandal, go watch it on Hulu and then come back here. We’ll still be here.)


1. James Marshall (Harrison Ford) in Air Force One

Signature Career Achievements: Thwarts terrorist attack by militant Russian separatists aboard Air Force One. Saves lives of the First Lady and only child, as well as his senior staff.

Career Lowlights: At the outset of film, announces the Marshall Doctrine, an open-ended military commitment to…basically confront evil wherever it may be, a policy that makes the “War on Terror” look well thought out.

Notable Personal Traits: In surprisingly good shape for a middle-age bureaucrat. Excellent shot with firearms, packs a mean right hook.

Basically An Idealized Version of: John McCain    

Bottom Line: Did we mention that he singlehandedly thwarts a terrorist attack on his plane?


2. Josiah “Jed” Bartlett (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing

Signature Career Achievements: Three appointments to the Supreme Court, wins landslide re-election, orders assassination of  the leader of a terrorist plot to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge, intervenes in a genocide in Africa, survives assassination attempt by neo-Nazis, endures the kidnapping of his youngest daughter, and a bunch of other stuff…

Career Lowlights: Administration is prone to scandal. Lies to public about his health. His chief of staff is secretly an alcoholic with a heart condition. Vice President resigns in a sex scandal.

Notable Personal Traits: With Aaron Sorkin as his speechwriter, he speaks in incisive, witty, perfectly sculpted paragraphs at all times. Cares, really cares.

Basically An Idealized Version of: Bill Clinton

Bottom Line: Bartlett For America!


3. Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact

Signature Career Achievements: Leads America through the threat of a giant asteroid potentially destroying all life on earth. Sends Robert Duvall to stop it.

Career Lowlights: Mission only partially a success. Though most of the asteroid is destroyed some devastation occurs—but not enough devastation to keep the movie from ending on an inspirational note of we-can-do-this togetherness.

Notable Personal Traits: Gravitas, damn it.

Is Basically An Idealized Version of: Morgan Freeman

Bottom Line: Played by Morgan Freeman, and we all love Morgan Freeman.


4. Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) in Independence Day

Signature Career Achievements: Leads the world in rebuffing an alien attack. Cribs the speech from Braveheart and adapts it to fighting aliens.

Career Lowlights: Loses the First Lady and the White House.

Notable Personal Traits: Though ostensibly a regular dude, he has that twitchy Bill Pullman thing about him…

Basically An Idealized Version of: John McCain, by way of Bill Pullman

Bottom Line: Helps saves the world from an alien attack. That’s worth the fourth spot on the Mount Rushmore of fictional presidents.



1.  Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President

Signature Career Achievements: Resolves an airline strike at Christmas, passes watered-down crime control legislation, orders a military strike against Libya.

Career Lowlights: Goes on national television to admit that he hobbled environmental legislation in order to pass the politically expedient crime bill, and loves Annette Bening.

Notable Personal Traits: With Aaron Sorkin as his speechwriter, he speaks in incisive, witty, perfectly sculpted paragraphs at all times. Cares, really cares. Also, good dancer.

Is Basically An Idealized Version of: Bill Clinton

Bottom Line: Great guy, but it’s too bad that he ended his chances of reelection by going on  national television and standing behind the presidential podium to talk about his love life.


2. Edward Bennett (Donald Moffat) in Clear And Present Danger

Signature Career Achievements: Orders a covert war on drugs.

Career Lowlights: Orders a horribly mismanaged convert war on drugs.

Notable Personal Traits: Stentorian speaking style.Likes to remind people that he is The President Of The United States.

Is Basically An Idealized Version of: George H.W. Bush

Bottom Line: Yells at Harrison Ford, unaware that Ford will shortly become POTUS himself.


3. Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) in Scandal

Signature Career Achievements: Passes the DREAM ACT. Survives assassination attempt. Has sex with Crisis Management Expert Kerry Washington in the Oval Office.

Career Lowlights: Having sex in the Oval Office probably not a great idea. Picks rightwing nutjob as Veep. Unknowingly stole the election that brought him into office. Murders the Supreme Court Justice who tried to have him assassinated.

Notable Personal Traits: Passion, such passion.

Is Basically An Idealized Version of: Mark Sanford

Bottom Line: Great taste in women, but probably needs to focus more at work.



1. Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Stangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Signature Career Achievements: None.

Career Lowlights: Presides over the nuclear annihilation of the world as we know it.

Notable Personal Traits: Wholesale ineptitude.

Is Basically A Ghoulish Version of: Adlai Stevenson.

Bottom Line: See “Career Lowlights”


2Allen Richmond (Gene Hackman) in Absolute Power

Signature Career Achievements: None.

Career Lowlights: Having an affair with the young wife of a wealthy donor, physically attacking the young woman, then attempting to cover up her accidental shooting by the Secret Service.

Notable Personal Traits: General scumbaggary.

Is Basically A Ghoulish Version of: Bill Clinton

Bottom Line: Ladies and gentleman, our sleaziest president.


3. Every President on 24

Signature Career Achievements: Sometimes lucky enough to have Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) save them from assassination, chemical or biological or nuclear attack, or various internecine governmental plots.

Career Lowlights: Being assassinated, being incapacitated and removed from office by the invoking of the 25th Amendment, partaking in various internecine governmental plots. Note: only happens when Bauer isn’t around.

Notable Personal Traits: Over-reliance on one particular counter-terrorism agent?

Is Basically A Ghoulish Version of: Everyone without the will to be Jack Bauer.

Bottom Line: Send Bauer to regulate Wall Street?

Let us know if we missed any notable occupants of the celluloid Oval Office!

Jake Hinkson, the Night Editor, is the author of The Posthumous Man.

Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.


  1. Jake Hinkson

    Someone on Facebook mentioned James Earle Jones in “The Man” (1972). Also, Henry Fonda in “Fail-Safe” (1964).

  2. Clare 2e

    I’m not sure I saw either of those, but I think both actors would play great as presidents. Henry Fonda as the Camp David, fly fishing version.

  3. fanfromfla

    I’d vote for Kevin Kline in “Dave”!

  4. Miriam Guidero

    I agree with fanfromfla–you missed Dave!

  5. Louis Burklow

    Don’t forget Jack Warden as the impotent (figuratively and literally) president in “Being There.” Oh, and his likely successor, Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers).

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