Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Casting of the President

We can do better than Donald Trump. We all know it. But I'm not talking about his politics. I'm talking about his performance and entertainment value. After all, he's just a reality TV star who has played the corporate version of Judge Judy. Before that it was all bit parts and walk-ons, mainly self-promotion for his gaudy real estate empire.
    No wonder his presidential campaign feels like a political sitcom featuring Biff Tannen, the Back to the Future bully to whom Trump is often compared. The plot, gags and catch phrases are already wearing thin, as if Veep morphed into Breaking Bad.
    But seriously (not), if we want an entertainer-in-chief, at least let's get first-rate talent. Personally, I'm for Bernie Sanders. Not showy, but believable and increasingly entertaining (and right on the issues). But if being believable and entertaining are what make you electable these days, actors and other performers may have an edge. We’ve already had one actor in the role, Ronald Reagan, who knew how to sustain his appeal and sell almost anything – from Borax to Star Wars.
    For a while we also had an actor in the 2008 race, Fred Thompson. He had even played a real president, although it was Ulysses Grant in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But Thompson's real problems were that he couldn’t find a decent script and seemed uncommitted to the part.
     What about someone who has played a fictional president? That could provide experience imagining and handling a crisis, especially one that hasn't happened yet. Feels like some sort of advantage. Remember when  Bill Pullman saved us from an alien invasion in Independence Day, or when Harrison Ford faced off terrorists in Air Force One? Those were terrifying times, they boldly took charge, and everything worked out. Or how about John Travolta? He played a charming, fictional Bill Clinton and he can fly a plane. 
    For a while Martin Sheen seemed destined for the role. First, in The Dead Zone, he played a presidential candidate whom Christopher Walken foresaw blowing up the planet. Years later he returned as the longest running president in TV history, keeping America witty, safe and fast-talking on The West Wing. Clearly, he had learned from “experience.”
     Other qualified prospects, all of whom have played the President at some point, include Sam Waterston, James Earl Jones, Jimmy Smits, Alan Alda, Morgan Freeman, Tom Selleck, William Petersen, Dennis Haysbert, Tim Robbins, Michael Douglas, Rip Torn, Robert Duval, Michael Keaton, James Brolin, Billy Bob Thornton, two Quaid brothers, both Jeff and Beau Bridges, and even Kris Kristofferson.
    Want a comedian, someone far more entertaining than Trump? You can't do better than Chris Rock, a stand up president in Head of State. Imagine his State of the Union speech.
    A female alternative to Hillary? The supply of tested candidates is growing. Julianne Moore almost crashed the glass ceiling as Sarah Palin in HBO's Game Change. But let's not forget Geena Davis, who kicked ass on Commander in Chief – and won a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Glenn Close, Patty Duke, Patricia Wettig … they all have recent presidential experience, plus acting chops. 
     We must also seriously consider Meryl Streep, who nailed an Oscar as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady -- with a flawed script. Sure, Thatcher was a British head-of-state, but Streep is pure American, born in New Jersey. 
     Some names on this list are past their box office dates. But it's just a starting lineup. Look at it this way: In addition to serving as commander-in-chief, the president must now deliver a sustained public performance on the biggest stage of all. Whoever gets the job will be in our living rooms almost every day for at least four years. That's something to consider. The role calls for believability, authenticity, a bit of star quality, and a talent for conveying both compassion and righteous outrage, plus a talent for improvisation and an instinct for public taste. Oh yes, also good judgement and such...
     Anyway, restricting the field to amateurs -- governors, senators and other so-called political "insiders" -- clearly isn't working out. The best they can deliver is awkward guest shots on SNL and The Daily Show. What do they know about building a fan base, staying in character, and looking comfortable on TV? Isn't it time to for someone who can really handle the role?