Over the course of American history, all 44 presidents have been men and all but one have been white men. On television, our presidents have been a far more diverse bunch.
Eight years into the Obama presidency and with the potential first female president on the horizon, white male presidents are starting to feel almost nostalgic. This past week saw the rise to power a new fictional American president in Kiefer Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, a lowly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who is thrust into the highest office in the land when terrorists decimate the State of the Union in the pilot for Designated Survivor.
He’s just the latest in long list of characters who a large swath of Americans would probably prefer to the two main options on the ballot this fall.
President Josiah Edward Bartlet (Martin Sheen, The West Wing)
Martin Sheen was left off the list of West Wing cast members reuniting to campaign for Hillary Clinton this month, but the show’s creator Aaron Sorkin has said of his character, President Jed Bartlet would “of course” endorse the Democratic candidate over Donald Trump. Starting in the fall of 1999, Bartlet became a beloved figure in liberal circles for his unwavering, idealistic Democratic principles. By the 2000 election, he was by some measures more popular than Al Gore or George W. Bush.
President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, 24)
Fox launched 24 less than two months after 9/11 and gave this fictional version of the U.S. a black commander-in-chief seven years before President Obama took office. Starting out as a candidate on the show’s first season, it is the threat against his life that sets the series into motion. He stuck around for four seasons before — spoiler alert — being killed in the opening scenes of season five.
President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica)
Technically, Mary McDonnell’s Laura Roslin was president of the Twelve Colonies, not the United States. But like Designated Survivor’s Kirkman, she too became president after holding a lower-level cabinet position when the Cylon attacks wiped out most of the existing government. Unlike many American presidents, she had much bigger things to worry about than terrorism.
President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis, Commander in Chief)
Similar to other fictional female presidents on TV, Geena Davis’ President Mackenzie Allen was not elected to the office, but instead rose from the vice presidency following the previous commander-in-chief’s death. The show was canceled after its one and only season a decade ago, when the prospect of a woman in the Oval Office seemed a lot more like a long shot than it does now.
President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones, 24)
Before Cherry Jones played a lesbian feminist poet on Transparent, she played a Republican president on 24. Taking office during the show’s seventh season, President Allison Taylor arrived just as Hillary Clinton was squaring off with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. But, Jones said at the time, “She’s not at all like Hillary Clinton. In the first place, I think she’s battling depression. I think of Hillary Clinton as a very gregarious and pragmatic person.”
President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, 1600 Penn)
One of the few joys of 1600 Penn, a short-lived sitcom co-created by former Obama Administration speechwriter and current political podcaster Jon Lovett, was seeing Bill Pullman regain his rightful place as president of the United States 16 years after the first Independence Day film. Unfortunately, President Dale Gilchrist was generally less inspiring than President Thomas Whitmore.
President Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith, The Simpsons)
Remember that time The Simpsons flashed forward 30 years and revealed that Lisa was America’s first straight female president? It was in that same episode that writer Dan Greaney predicted a Donald Trump presidency, a full 16 years before his name would appear on the general election ballot. As viewers learn in the futuristic episode, Lisa Simpson “inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump.”
President Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits, The West Wing)
Legend has it Jimmy Smits’s President Matthew Santos from the final season of The West Wing was based on Barack Obama. In his 2011 book The Bridge, The New Yorker’s David Remnick reports that writer Eli Attie began writing the character right after he watched then-State Senator Obama deliver his address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "One of the main things was Obama's attitude about race, his almost militant refusal to be defined by it,” Attie says in the book, “which became the basis for an episode I wrote called 'Opposition Research,' in which Santos said he didn't want to run as the 'brown candidate,' even though that's where all his support and fundraising potential were.”
President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (Tony Goldwyn, Scandal)
Tony Goldwyn’s “Fitz” could probably win an award for most sex by a TV president for his turbulent tryst with Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope on Scandal. Like many other fictional presidents, he survives an assassination attempt and doesn’t pay much attention to his children.
President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep)
“It could be the shortest presidency in history,” Veep creator Armando Iannucci told The Daily Beast last year of Selina Meyer’s unexpected rise. She started out the series as vice president, briefly ascended to the top job after the never-seen president resigned, but then had to immediately start campaigning for the next cycle. By the end of season five, after an election that ended in a terrifyingly-possible electoral college tie, she had lost her job and her identity. But at least the part helped earn Julia-Louis Dreyfus a record six lead actress Emmy awards.
President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey, House of Cards)
Like Veep’s Selina Meyer, Frank Underwood had to work his way up to the presidency on House of Cards. But instead of accidental luck, Kevin Spacey’s Richard III-esque character used deception and murder to get there. Underwood also holds the distinction of having his portrait hung in the actual National Portrait Gallery.
President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland, Designated Survivor)
Designated Survivor’s Tom Kirkman is basically the answer to the question, what if Jack Bauer was a nerdy guy who suddenly became president in the middle of a national crisis? The premise makes for a compelling pilot, but despite Kiefer Sutherland saying that when he read the script he felt he was “potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands,” it’s a bit hard to imagine where things go from here. But if he could keep America engrossed in every second of a single day for eight seasons of 24, anything is possible.