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On Monday we will celebrate the births of two of America’s most renown presidents: George Washington, who couldn’t screw up a job for which no one had any expectations, and Abraham Lincoln, who dared to allow a nation to screw itself up in order to set it on course to purge itself of crimes against mankind.
Despite those who disagreed with their views, their tactics and even their legacies, these men are the icons against whom all subsequent presidents are measured.
So I guess it says something about their examples – and me – that, to my way of thinking, the two most impressive and prescient presidents of the past six decades are purely fictional.
The real presidents during my lifetime have been, in many cases, notable and worthy men.
Align your politics as you will, but you can see the merits and greatness of Kennedy and Reagan – who worked opposite ends of the Cold War – and clips of competence and good intentions from some of the others.
The jury remains in deliberation on the guy in office now, and that verdict will be rendered in about 21 months. We can remain hopeful.
But I offer you two men who set themselves apart with the image of the president they presented, an image I believe we all would embrace if only it were possible.
Ironically, neither one was even elected in the mind of the writer who created him.
Each assumed the job under preposterously contrived circumstances and did so without even the allowable, meager carry-on baggage of today.
Neither really wanted the job nor had any prior elected experience.
And neither had a specified political party, which is perhaps the most telling trait of all.
You may or may not recognize these names. Or perhaps you have pondered their accomplishments and approaches and, like me, shaken your head and said:
This is the way it should be – which is a millennia from the way it is.
First there was Dave Kovic, the role so inimitably created by Kevin Kline in the movie Dave.
You may be familiar with this plot: A small-town social worker is installed by political puppeteers to replace a look-alike president who is on life support.
Dave goes along with that ruse until he understands the real ruse that is being perpetrated on the public, then he makes changes that are in the best interest of the public, despite the strings attached to him, and fakes his own death (as the president) to melt back into political obscurity, romantically taking along the late president’s widow for his ride into the sunset.
Then there is John Patrick Ryan, the creation and hero of several novels by Tom Clancy and the movies they spun.
Ryan made the silver screen as a member of the intelligence community in The Hunt For Red October(Alec Baldwin), Patriot Games(Harrison Ford) Clear & Present Danger(Ford) and Sum of All Fears(Ben Affleck), though in my mind’s eye neither Baldwin nor Affleck projected the appropriate aura or omniscience.
In Clancy’s unfilmed Executive Orders, Ryan becomes president of a country decimated by a terrorist attack on the capitol during the State of the Union address, which means the president and members of the House, Senate, cabinet and Supreme Court all virtually were wiped out.
Ryan, who had been sworn in as term-fulfilling vice president to reward him for heroic hubris even as the attack was occurring, recalcitrantly rebuilt the government, inspired the nation and, ultimately, avenged another terrorist assault or two as well.
But in doing so he acted independently to implement vital services, lead strategic thinking and create programs and processes that served the people, not a political agenda.
Never has presidential leadership obviously been more fictional.
But don’t you think the principles developed in these narratives would be warm and welcome improvements on both the realities and the rhetoric we hear today out of Washington?
These men did what they thought was right. They dissuaded those who tried to play old games, rejected those who created new ones and used the historical intent of their office to do that all-elusive “what was right.”
They found a way to take care of the needs of Americans who didn’t have health care. They created a flat-rate tax system that was fair to all.
They balanced the budget, avenged assaults and established unfettered authority.
They did what needed to be done, and they didn’t negotiate with anyone.
But today all we have is negotiations, posturing, rebuttals and name-calling.
Democrats get control of Congress and go hysterical with power and try to stick a bandage on every American need.
Republicans respond with a foothold of new control by spewing self-serving froth that plays no role in solving problems, only in making the scab ever more loose on every little wound there is.
Why does a country that needs to provide affordable health care for all its citizens get caught up in a debate and have to give a name, “Obamacare”?
Health-care issues have nothing to do with who is in power.
This is about what is right, and it matters not who gets it done or how it gets done.
Two presidents have tried to do this right thing, and their heads must now be bleeding from the resistance of the brick wall.
Now our leaders are arguing over how to cut the federal budget and yelling about which areas should be addressed.
What they don’t address themselves is simple: The entire budget should be addressed, as Dave Kovic did so deftly.
Probably Washington and undoubtedly Lincoln felt similar resistance, but they lived up to another statement by another fictional president, Andrew Shepherd from The American President, who told the nation in a moment of crisis, “I amthe president.”
And then he solved the problem.