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Flashback Five – Exemplary Movie Presidents


Right now, Barack Obama probably doesn’t have much time for movie-viewing, but if you had to fix the financial system, reshape America’s foreign policy, and prop up the auto industry, you’d probably want to take an occasional break. With that in mind, Flashback Five presents exemplary movie presidents with good guidance to offer our new commander-in-chief.

1. President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)
I have a soft spot for Deep Impact, thanks to the scene where President Beck addresses the nation to let people know a killer rock is heading toward Earth. He pauses in the middle of his speech to institute a price freeze: “What a bottle of water cost you yesterday, it will cost you tomorrow.” It’s a moment that maybe only a policy wonk could love, but it’s also a reminder that the president has to sweat the small stuff, too.
Lesson to learn: Big problems have small, but important, ramifications.

2. President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) in Independence Day (1996)
We all have happy memories of Bill Pullman’s rousing, Henry V-in-front-of-a-fighter-jet speech in Independence Day, but imagine what a downer it would have been if he’d finished, waved good-bye to his pilots, and headed to a secure bunker to watch the action through binoculars. Pullman gets in his plane to do his part alongside his fellow Americans. It’s not a bad model to apply to problems other than space aliens.
Lesson to learn: Lead by example

3. President Bennett (Donald Moffat) in Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Remember how in Clear and Present Danger, the sets and subsets of interests and players in the American intelligence and political apparatus not only fail to do good — they wind up actively working with the bad guys in the name of political expediency? It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when there’s no wisdom behind our intelligence.
Lesson to learn: The right hand needs to know what the left hand’s doing.

4. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove (1964)
It’s one of the greatest comedic sequences in American movies: A chastened president tries to explain to his Soviet counterpart that a bomber’s en route to Russia to drop several H-bombs. “Well now, what happened is… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head…. You know… just a little… funny.” It’s a great demonstration of the need for better communication — even with some of our enemies.
Lesson to learn: Reach out to other world leaders before it’s too late.

5. President Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1993)
In the unexpectedly touching Dave, Kevin Klein is asked to imitate the president for a night — and that night becomes an ongoing gig. The masquerade can’t last, though, and in Dave’s carefully engineered departure, he gives a speech before the House of Representatives: “I forgot that I was hired to do a job for you, and it was just a temp job.” It’s a nice reminder that the nation needs to solve today’s problems with an eye toward tomorrow.
Lesson to learn: When you’re the new president, it’s important to remember there’s going to be a another one after you.

Honorable Mentions:

1. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)
Lesson to learn: Don’t let the press determine your agenda — and vet your hires carefully.

2. President Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid) in American Dreamz (2006)
Lesson to learn: It’s OK to be a famous president; just don’t be a celebrity president.

3. President Camacho (Charlie Murphy) in Idiocracy (2006)
Lesson to learn: Listen to other people’s ideas — and don’t irrigate your plants with sport beverages.

4. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)
Lesson to learn: Don’t let Aaron Sorkin anywhere near your speech-writing team — that guy goes on forever.

5. President Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) in Secret Honor (1984)
Lesson to learn: Don’t drink and dictate.

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