History’s other greatest monsters: 15 pop-culture presidents behaving unpresidentially

History’s other greatest monsters: 15 pop-culture presidents behaving unpresidentially

1. Lyndon Johnson orchestrates the assassination of John F. Kennedy, JFK (1991)
Several American presidents have been suspected of awful things, and many more, fictional and factual, have had misdeeds attributed to them by popular culture. But LBJ is the only one who’s been subjected to repeated accusations that he had something to do with his predecessor’s murder. Barbara Garson’s 1967 play MacBird! cast Johnson as a white-trash Macbeth figure who personally dispatched his Duncan, JFK. The playwright’s husband, Marvin Garson, helped inspire a notorious article in Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realist, alleging that Johnson raped Kennedy’s corpse in the neck wound during the flight back from Dallas aboard Air Force One. Krassner and the Garsons were satirists who went to extremes to express how repulsed they were to see their beautiful young president replaced by someone they regarded as a Texas vulgarian, but Oliver Stone, who spent the ’60s partly in Vietnam and partly in a drugged-out haze, found out about the “Johnson whacked Kennedy” angle late, and didn’t realize it was meant to be a joke. Based on the conspiracy theories of Jim Garrison and L. Fletcher Prouty—and deeply committed to the idea that whoever greatly benefits from a man’s death must be directly responsible for it—Stone’s JFK shows Johnson cutting a deal with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreeing that if they’ll take out Kennedy, he, as president, will let them have their land war in Asia. In interviews given when the movie was in production, Stone indicated that he really believed something like this happened, though as the release date neared, he shifted toward arguing that he merely wanted to create a “counter-myth” to the “official myth” of the lone gunman, as enshrined in the Warren Commission Report. (PDN)

2. Abraham Lincoln interrupts The Bard, The Whitest Kids U’Know (2007)
It doesn’t take a sterling comic mind like Louis C.K.’s to glean laughter from the United States’ proudest leader acting like kind of a dick. Before there was Saturday Night Live’s “Lincoln,” there was Whitest Kids U’Know’s “Lincoln,” one of the few standout scenes to emerge from the New York sketch troupe’s often torturous TV efforts. Dabbling in a bit of Civil War-era revisionism, the sketch re-imagines the Lincoln assassination not as a matter of Confederate pride, but one of common courtesy: Following several outbursts during the Ford’s Theatre presentation of Hamlet, The Great Emancipator is hammered to death by that noted patron of the arts, John Wilkes Booth. (Never one to pass up a sophomoric punchline, the Whitest Kids are sure to note Lincoln “died of being hammered in the ass.”) Zach Cregger’s interpretation of Honest Abe is loud, boorish, and seemingly alone in his theater box—facts missing from the average history text. For that matter, most history books don’t cover what this sketch posits as the lost “vampire army” arc of Shakespeare’s most revered tragedy, either. (EA)

3. George H.W. Bush doles out corporeal punishment, The Simpsons (1996)
Upstaging the Simpson family’s garage sale by moving in across the street is just the start of the bad behavior displayed by the elder President Bush in the seventh-season Simpsons episode “Two Bad Neighbors.” Then again, Bart Simpson in full-on Dennis The Menace mode is enough to drive anyone to conduct unbefitting a public servant, and when Homer joins in on the torment—after Bush spanks Bart to punish him for shredding Bush’s memoir—it’s only a matter of time before ol’ H.W. is dragged down into the sewer muck with them. Spanking a child, fighting in public, and hanging a grammatically ambiguous banner is bad enough, but apologizing for said actions in front of Mikhail Gorbachev? It doesn’t get much more unpresidential than that. Maybe Bush should have thought twice before condemning The Simpsons’ family values back in 1992. (Surprisingly, former first lady Barbara “Bar” Bush escapes her visit to Evergreen Terrace relatively unscathed, in spite of calling the show “The dumbest thing [she] had ever seen” in an interview.) (GK)

4. Seth MacFarlane vs. George W. Bush, Family Guy and American Dad 
Considering Seth MacFarlane once called George W. Bush “retarded” on Real Time With Bill Maher, it should come as no surprise that two of the shows MacFarlane created and stars in, Family Guy and American Dad, rarely pass up an opportunity to mock the 43rd president as a childlike buffoon. The former usually does so in the form of its signature cutaway gags, in which Bush has been portrayed hiding out in a treehouse following Hurricane Katrina, crying like a baby after accidentally breaking a snow globe, and being foiled by a Slinky, among other things. Bush has also made cameos in American Dad over the years, but he got a long-form send-up in the second-season episode “Bush Comes To Dinner,” where, after visiting the Smith home for dinner, the recovering alcoholic is pushed off the wagon by perpetually intoxicated alien houseguest Roger. In the end, Bush is actually redeemed and the office of the president treated with relative respect, but not before he’s put through a gauntlet of humiliating drunken behavior, from skinny-dipping to posing suggestively with a replica of the Washington Monument. (GK)

5. George W. Bush makes constant threats of physical abuse, That’s My Bush (2001)
Caricatures of The Decider as an incompetent bumpkin were a dime a dozen during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration. Only Trey Parker and Matt Stone could see the second President Bush for what he truly was: the bumbling patriarch of a family sitcom. That’s My Bush’s barbs were largely reserved for the hackneyed conventions of Nick At Nite fare, but its most memorable gag ascribed some dark emotions to its titular character. In a spoof of Jackie Gleeson’s various, never-followed-through-on-Honeymooners catchphrases (“Bang! Zoom! Straight to the moon!”), every episode of That’s My Bush ended with George—backed by the chorus of the show’s cacophonous laugh track—declaring “One of these days, Laura, I’m gonna punch you in the face!” Timothy Bottoms’ portrayal of Bush was too cuddly to sell the idea that the president would ever sock his wife right in the kisser, but leave it to the co-creators of South Park to lay such grim undertones beneath such a sunny façade. (EA)

6. President Richmond orders a woman’s death, Absolute Power (1997)
In William Goldman’s second tome on screenwriting, Which Lie Did I Tell?, the two-time Oscar-winning scriptwriter talks about what attracted him to writing the adaptation of David Baldacci’s Absolute Power. Goldman, a sucker for a high concept, realized Baldacci had arrived at a great one: What if a thief broke into the White House to steal a few items, then witnessed the president ordering the Secret Service to kill a secret lover? Goldman changed much of the novel for the screen, at the behest of director and star Clint Eastwood—up to and including eliminating the novel’s main character entirely—but he kept that central hook, which is depicted in an early scene when Gene Hackman’s President Richmond first attempts to strangle the beautiful young wife of a key supporter, then orders the Secret Service to shoot her after she attacks him with a letter opener. From there, it’s up to Eastwood’s gentleman thief to prove Richmond is a crook. Does he? No spoilers, but he is played by Clint Eastwood. (TV)

7. Laura Roslin steals an election, Battlestar Galactica
It’s easy to forget because she’s generally the greatest president anyone could ever want in the end times, but Mary McDonnell’s Laura Roslin tends to cross the line in Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica remake, often in thrilling ways that speak to the political issues of the mid-’00s. Roslin orders the torture of treacherous Cylons, follows the barely hinged prophecies of ancient writings, and outlaws abortion when she decides humanity needs every baby it can get. But she makes an unambiguous jump from political expedience to criminality when she attempts to steal an election she’s bound to lose in the second-season finale, “Lay Down Your Burdens.” To be sure, Roslin has a point: If the presidency goes to her competitor (James Callis’ sniveling Gaius Baltar), things will surely go from bad to rotten, and everyone will be sorry they elected the traitor who doomed humanity. But Baltar wins, Roslin is caught, and a year into his rule, the Cylons take over. Roslin fights back against the robot oppressors, but the whole time, her face says, “See? I was right.”

8. Richard Nixon puts out a hit on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Watchmen (1986)
Artists ranging from Philip Roth (Our Gang) to Robert Coover (The Public Burning) to Robert Altman (Secret Honor) to Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred (in an issue of Sandman) have used President Nixon as the embodiment of the immortal spirit of corruption in American politics. But it took a pessimist on the scale of Alan Moore to suggest circumstances under which American voters might never have been able to dislodge him from the Oval Office. Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is partly intended as a rebuke to an ’80s political culture that never had a good word for the ’60s and early ’70s. In its alternate-universe ’80s, the prior decades never happened, because the powers that be had super-powered agents to win their wars and crush dissent at home. As such, President Nixon is in his fifth term in 1985. Does this mean that the crimes for which he was driven from office never happened? The answer to that seems to come in a throwaway reference to the unsolved murders of a couple of Washington Post reporters—presumably Woodward and Bernstein—whose bodies were found in a parking garage. It seems safe to assume that they were killed on Nixon’s orders, perhaps by the Comedian—who, it’s strongly suggested, paved the way for Nixon’s election in 1968 by assassinating President Kennedy. (PDN)

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9. The preserved head of Richard Nixon steals a body and exploits a loophole, Futurama
Between Richard Nixon’s disgraceful second term and pop culture’s endless lampooning of the former president—a favorite activity of Matt Groening in particular—it would take more than some clandestine dealings, contempt for voters, or even yelling at his dog Checkers to be considered anything but par for the scandal-ridden course. And for much of Futurama’s second-season episode “A Head In The Polls,” that’s certainly the case. Nixon, head affixed to Bender’s hastily hawked body, campaigns for president of Earth on the constitutional loophole that “no body may be elected more than twice,” a clever but legal trick that isn’t exactly out of step with his past misdeeds. But when the Planet Express crew blackmails Nixon to retrieve Bender’s body, Nixon simply affixes himself to a giant war robot, setting up the episode’s punchline and Tricky Dick’s brazen misbehavior in the process. With the robot vote in hand, Nixon wins in a landslide, and acts quickly on his apparent mandate by stomping on his inductor, storming the White House mall with rockets blazing, and then, as warned, “going into people’s houses and wrecking up the place.” It’s his own house, but unlike John Quincy Adding Machine, Nixon at least delivers on his promise. (SM)

10. Charles Logan participates in a terrorist conspiracy, 24
One of the major challenges facing each new season of 24 was finding a way to top the previous season’s threat. While the show got a lot of mileage out of Kiefer Sutherland’s grizzled stoicism and week-in-week-out plot twists, the stories needed stakes to work, and those stakes needed to be shocking in order to justify the increasingly desperate lengths to which the heroes go to save the day. Season one started with the threat of an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate, season two saw terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear bomb—it’s a shame the show was canceled before the inevitable arrival of aliens in season 10. This progression reached its artistic and narrative peak in the show’s fifth season, as a murder frame-up and 20 canisters of nerve gas eventually lead Jack Bauer to the highest office in the land: President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). Itzin’s oily desperation makes him the perfect symbol for the show’s grim-to-the-point-of-nihilism view of politics and bureaucracy in general; having Logan turn not just obstructionist, but outright evil served as a natural climax to Jack’s seemingly never-ending series of bad days. 

11. Barack Obama gets “really frosty” in college, Key & Peele
President Barack Obama maintains his composure even when people call him a liar to his face, or when his opponents spew incorrect “facts.” Key & Peele sees a man seething with anger he wishes he could act on. That’s the subject of the show’s “Obama And Luther” sketches, which cast Jordan Peele as Obama and Keegan-Michael Key as his apoplectic “anger translator.” But the show’s second-season opener took it a step further, demonstrating that Obama’s been stifling his impulses for far longer. The episode presents grainy footage from Obama’s “college years,” a series of sketches that show the president, solidly stoned, finally letting loose and letting everybody know exactly how he feels about this country. He’s never angry, though; he maintains his magnetism and charm, even when chastising a classmate for skipping his turn with the blunt. “Don’t ever sleep on Barry O,” he says—a glimpse into what it might be like to have a president who’s unafraid to truly speak his mind. (SH)

12. Bill Mitchell suffers death by philandering, Dave (1993)
The fate of the president in the 1993 Kevin Kline comedy Dave probably made certain indiscreet commanders-in-chief squirm in their chairs. While enjoying a romp with a staffer played by Laura Linney, Kline’s President Mitchell suffers a severe stroke, which leaves in him in a coma—and ultimately kills him. Fortunately for the office of the president, a guy who looks just like him (also Kline) steps in to play Mitchell’s part, surpassing him as a person, president, and husband. Dave serves as a reminder to frisky politicians to make sure to get a health screening—and, if possible, a doppelgänger—before messing around. (CZ)

13. The president makes a nuclear compromise, Fail-Safe (1964)
This tense thriller about an accidental nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was released the same year as the black comedy Dr. Strangelove, and both films feature roughly the same quality of presidential thinking. After determining he can’t prevent the missiles from reaching their target, the unnamed president (Henry Fonda) gets on the phone with the Soviet chairman, apologizes for the screw-up, and, as an alternative to armageddon, offers a compromise solution: To make up to for having unintentionally nuked Moscow, the United States won’t retaliate if the Soviets want to take out New York City. (He stoically fails to mention that his wife is currently visiting the Big Apple.) Neoconservatives call this sort of thing “equivalency.” They’re against it. (PDN)

14. William Howard Taft’s “Oral Office,” National Lampoon (1973)
It’s only fairly recently that historians and political analysts have begun routinely putting presidents on the couch, explaining that every aspect of, say, George W. Bush’s personality—and every important decision he ever made—was shaped by his daddy issues. A pioneering work of presidential psycho-biography, Ed Bluestone and Gray Morrow’s “The Oral Passions Of William Howard Taft” first appeared in the Lampoon’s February 1973 “Sexual Frustration” issue, revealing that the man remembered as the United States’ heaviest president was driven since childhood by his insatiable appetite for cunnilingus. As an adult, Taft wants only to practice law and dreams of making it to the Supreme Court, but he marries the ambitious Nellie Herron, who sizes him up as “a man who can be led to the White House by the scent of [her] snatch.” By holding out on him, Nellie compels her husband to run successfully for president, only to contract a rare disease that would kill her instantly if he attempts to perform oral sex on her. Maddened by this denial, Taft spends his years in office eating soldiers in the Oval Office. That’s eating, as in knife, fork, bib, etc. (PDN)

15. Howard Nissen kills his own vice president, Give Me Liberty (1990)
Comics writer Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, 300) has always been cynical about institutions like government and law enforcement, but never so clearly as he was in the ’90s miniseries Give Me Liberty, in which a single brave, determined woman navigates the horrific dystopia of the 2000s. One of many keys to the problem she faces: After a Saudi bomb takes out the president, his VP, and most of their cabinet members, Secretary Of Agriculture Howard Nissen is abruptly promoted to the highest office in the land. Nissen is a decent, concerned man who does his best to counter a century of corruption and disastrous American policies, but the constant struggle to fix the unfixable breaks him, and he disintegrates into alcoholism and depression. By the series’ midpoint, he’s so far gone that he murders his own vice president with a broken whiskey bottle, then signs an executive order for genocide, all while blackout intoxicated. Later, after his order has been carried out, he attempts to deny it all on live TV, but has to run offscreen to drunkenly vomit. Unsurprisingly, his career as president doesn’t last much longer, and doesn’t end well, particularly once the man who set up the genocide order realizes he doesn’t need President Nissen anymore.