While Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman’s short-lived mockumentary Tanner ’88 may have been one of the first television shows to focus squarely on the democratic process in action, shows as diverse as The Wire, Parks and Recreation, 24, Veep, and The Good Wife have dived into political action at its best and worst.
With the Fourth of July upon us, it’s time to look back at some of television’s most memorable politicians, from Parks and Recreation’s newly elected Leslie Knope and The West Wing’s President Josiah Bartlet to some of the more shady politicians ever to step into office, including The Wire’s Clay Davis and The Good Wife’s Peter Florrick.
A few caveats before jumping in: given the holiday, only American politicians were considered here, so you won’t see Borgen’s Danish Statsminister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), House of Cards’s Conservative Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), or The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) represented. The list is composed solely of television characters, rather than feature film ones. And finally, all of the candidates were elected to office, even if only in fiction, or attempted to run for an elected position, so Spin City’s Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty (Michael J. Fox) isn’t represented either.
As for why some favorites may have been omitted, to borrow a useful phrase from the slippery Urquhart, “I couldn’t possibly comment.”
Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation)
While the role of deputy director of the Parks Department of Pawnee, Ind., may seem a far cry from that of the POTUS, the grit and determination of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler)—as well as her impressive unwavering optimism—has been apparent from the show’s very beginning. In Season 4, Leslie dug deep in her campaign to win a seat on Pawnee’s City Council, fighting off a spoiled candy tycoon’s heir and a porn star to become the first female member of the City Council. Those who have grown jaded about the amazing power of the democratic system need only watch Poehler’s inspiring performance as she tearfully casts her ballot…and then later takes to the stage to deliver a heartfelt acceptance speech after winning a very tight race. Leslie’s innate buoyancy and belief in progress, change, and positivity make her a role model for politicians both fictional and real.
President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet (The West Wing)
The gold standard for television presidents, Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet represented a steady hand on the tiller of the nation, particularly during a time of (real world) political unrest and global uncertainty. Compassionate yet resolute in his personal beliefs, tough yet diplomatic, Bartlet represents the very best qualities of a POTUS. Even the revelation that he has multiple sclerosis—and concealed this fact during his election campaign—doesn’t remove the old bear from office or stop him from delivering a State of the Union address. (He’s fiery and determined, even at the risk of his health!) Nor do the other obstacles this Democrat faces—from the kidnapping of his daughter to an assassination attempt—deter him from serving the office of the presidency with the utmost resolve and integrity. Years after The West Wing has gone off the air, the memory of this ideal president lingers.
President David Palmer (24)
At the time Fox’s ticking-clock thriller 24 began back in 2001, the notion that America would elect an African-American president seemed implausible for many. The first season of 24 found Kiefer Sutherland attempting to prevent the assassination of then–Maryland state Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) during the California primary. Surrounded by would-be betrayers, including his villainous wife, Sherry, Palmer nonetheless ascends to the presidency, becoming a thoughtful and unwavering leader in Season 2, one who refuses to bow down to terrorists and who often granted extreme leeway to the agents of the Counter Terrorism Unit. Palmer’s legacy extends beyond the show: without Palmer’s fictional presidency, the road to the White House for President Barack Obama may not have been quite so smooth, with Haysbert’s Palmer perhaps even helping Obama’s candidacy in the minds of the voters.
Vice President Selina Meyer (Veep)
The former opponent of the unseen president, Veep’s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is in a unique position: she’s a heartbeat away from ascending to the presidency, but in her current role her powers are noticeably curtailed and she spends much of her day asking her assistant Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) whether the president has called. (He never does.) Even when Selina finds a cause she believes in—biodegradable utensils, a clean-jobs commission, filibuster reform—she’s often asked to put her own aspirations aside in order to smooth things over for the POTUS. Caustic, short-tempered, and politically hanging on by a thread, Louis-Dreyfus’s brittle Selina is riveting to watch, whether she’s trying to smooth-talk a recalcitrant senator, curse out her hapless staffers, or force her guileless body man, Gary (Tony Hale), to break up with her boyfriend for her.
President Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica)
Yes, Battlestar Galactica was set in the far reaches of outer space and not in the United States, but Mary McDonnell’s headstrong and wise Laura Roslin more than earns her spot on the list. The Twelve Colonies’ secretary of education when the Cylon attack decimates the human race, she’s the highest-ranking politician left alive and is quickly sworn in as president. Over the course of her presidency, she battles hostile rivals, deadly robots, and even breast cancer, emerging from each encounter stronger and more steadfast in her beliefs. Roslin herself is extremely strong-willed and willing to order some morally gray actions in an effort to safeguard the continued existence of the human race. In her role as president, she manages to be both compassionate and pragmatic, a rare combination in a leader, holding her own against the military authority embodied by Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos).
State Senator R. Clayton ‘Clay’ Davis (The Wire)
Within David Simon’s magnum opus The Wire, Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s venal state Sen. Clay Davis occupies a certain position of notoriety. Completely corrupt and in bed with various government factions, drug dealers (from whom he’s become accustomed to receiving bribes), and even the police commissioner, Clay Davis is a study in iniquity, a politician with no scruples about self-preservation and the advancement of power and wealth. Even when a wide-ranging Baltimore drug task force runs afoul of Davis, the powers that be deny a request to expand wiretapping to include Davis. But it’s Davis’s hilarious reaction to any bad news—met with a characteristically elongated “sheeeeee-it”—that have more than earned him a place in the pop-culture hall of fame.
Secretary of State Elaine Barrish (Political Animals)
In USA’s upcoming miniseries Political Animals (beginning July 15), Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, a former first lady who moved to the role of secretary of State after a failed presidential bid. Sound like anyone else we know? Weaver’s Barrish is definitely cast in the mold of Hilary Rodham Clinton, though, unlike Clinton, Barrish—after her failed bid to win the Democratic Party primary—divorces her husband (Ciaran Hinds), the philandering former president whose side she stood by even in the face of widespread public scrutiny and scandal. Like Clinton, Barrish is poised, keenly intelligent, and politically astute…and she’s not content with losing to anybody, whether that be her husband, her former presidential opponent (Adrian Pasdar), or a reporter (Carla Gugino) who ripped her to shreds in The Washington Post. Without giving anything away, look for Barrish to finish what she started, perhaps a tip of the hat to Clinton and a little bit of wishful thinking on the part of creator Greg Berlanti.
Peter Florrick (The Good Wife)
Disgraced and made notorious for a sex scandal (with a call girl) and professional corruption that landed him in prison, The Good Wife’s Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) nonetheless manages to overcome several Sisyphean obstacles and regain the office of Cook County state’s attorney…only to lose his steadfast wife (Julianna Margulies) in the process when she learns of his affair with her best friend, legal snoop Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), years before. Yet despite the chaos in his personal life—and his tendencies toward infidelity—the newly reformed Peter tries to be one of the good guys, sacrificing personal gain in order to see that justice is served. So much of the show’s crackle comes from the political engineering on the part of Noth’s Peter and Alan Cumming’s adviser Eli Gold. With Peter currently enmeshed in a bid for the Illinois governorship, it will be interesting to see creators Robert and Michelle King take Peter’s political machine to the state level, and ramp up the pressure on both Peter and Margulies’s Alicia.
Mayor Tommy Carcetti (The Wire)
What happens when a politician loses his idealism? While Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is far from perfect—he’s prone to cheating on his wife, for one—he’s an ambitious crusader for progress amid the urban decay of Baltimore when he’s introduced in the third season of the HBO drama. Over the course of the next three seasons, he moves from a position on the city council to the mayor of Baltimore and, ultimately, the governor of Maryland in the series finale. His loss of optimism is keenly felt as Carcetti begins to put his own personal agenda ahead of that of the city of Baltimore, and the people whose lives he pledged to improve. His failure to change the system and breaking of promises—all in pursuit, allegedly, of the so-called greater good to be helped down the line—is a cautionary tale to all who follow. His political slogan (“It’s a new day in Baltimore!”) is hollow in the end; there is no new day, no new beginning. The system keeps on churning.
President Allison Taylor (24)
Another idealist, Cherry Jones’s Allison Taylor is the first female president of the United States on 24, but her sense of honor here isn’t a positive but rather a weakness, especially when her morality comes into contact with the harsh realities of her job. However, after her actions during 24’s seventh and eighth seasons—during which she betrays her values and sense of idealism by torturing a mole and arresting a journalist—the series ends with Taylor renouncing a cover-up and refusing to sign a peace treaty to instead face down the consequences to her actions. For a series that thrived on double-crosses, conspiracies, and cover-ups, Taylor’s decision to turn herself in and resign from the presidency is perhaps a shift toward moral balance and accountability once more, a former optimist realizing the darkness and error of her actions. It’s worth mentioning as well that Jones’s President Taylor was not the first female live-action TV president; that honor goes to Geena Davis’s Mackenzie Allen in ABC’s short-lived Commander in Chief.
President Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons)
Wait, what? In a 2000 episode of the never-ending animated comedy The Simpsons, an Indian mystic grants Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) a vision of the year 2020, when the family visits an Indian casino, and she glimpses a future where she becomes the president of the United States. Attempting to rescue the country from financial ruin after the disastrous leadership of President Donald Trump, Lisa is the first straight female POTUS and comes to office after Trump, Chastity (now Chaz) Bono, and Ted Kennedy. (All of which might discount this particular alternate timeline from coming to pass.) While the episode (“Bart to the Future”) was deemed The Simpsons’ “worst episode ever” by Entertainment Weekly, there’s something endearing about thinking about little Lisa Simpson becoming president one day, though one hopes no one asked her for a copy of her long-form birth certificate.