14 Dumb Things Pop Culture Has Us Believe About The Office of the President
The Executive Office of the President - including the literal Oval Office as well as all the people and policies related to the top US political executive - is a popular subject for television and movies. But Hollywood doesn't always get the details right, so presidential tropes are common. Television shows like The West Wing and House of Cards, as well as films like Air Force One and The American President, show the Oval Office as everything from a corrupt cesspool to a bastion of pure democracy. Films about the president and White House like to blow things up, literally.
Whatever the genre and tone, one thing is true across all these TV shows and films: They get a lot wrong. The errors might be related to things the president simply can't do, special privileges, or actions that are theoretically possible, but outlandish.
Presidential TV shows and movies have us believe some truly dumb stuff. Note: A president who has done, or will do, any of the following things or something similar is an exception, not the norm.
- Photo: Madam Secretary / CBS165 VOTES
Staffers Are Always Carrying Around Stacks Of Binders
Whether it's a frantic Elizabeth McCord in Madam Secretary or Toby Ziegler in The West Wing, presidential TV shows have a habit of showing high-level cabinet members hurrying around the West Wing bullpen carrying a massive stack of papers and binders. This depiction adds energy and chaos to such scenes, but the cabinet members end up looking more like high school students running late for class than professionals at the highest level of government.
Referring to McCord in the pilot episode of Madam Secretary, State Department veteran Tara Sonenshine said, “She’d have 10 people behind her to carry those [binders]." Apparently, in an effort to not overcrowd scenes and keep the focus on the main characters, the legion of aides, assistants, and interns who actually do menial tasks like carrying paperwork are left off-screen.
- Photo: Independence Day / 20th Century Fox278 VOTES
Through A Powerful Speech, POTUS Unifies The Country And Saves The Day
We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!
Moments after delivering this rousing speech in the 1996 film Independence Day, President Thomas Jay Whitmore leads a fight against alien invaders, unifying not just the United States, but the entire world. For good measure, he pilots a fighter jet himself.
Although the US hasn't yet been attacked by technologically advanced aliens (that we know of), it's unlikely a single speech would do much more than give cable news pundits some material to dissect and interpret. One of the most memorable wartime addresses ever delivered came in Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, but he was British, so it doesn't apply to the US presidency.
- Photo: The West Wing / NBC386 VOTES
The Press Secretary Is A Super-Savvy, Skillful Entertainer
Best exemplified by C.J. Cregg (and her successor Annabeth Schott) in The West Wing, the White House press secretary is often depicted as a quick-witted spin doctor who rarely gets caught off-guard and has a knack for getting laughs from the press corps. In reality, the press secretary often offers a list of prewritten talking points and isn't a comedian.
As Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, put it, "The communications office is the 'product development' side of the White House and the press office is 'retail and sales.'" So the press secretary's role is to take Oval Office messaging and disseminate it clearly to reporters. There's little room for showmanship, and those who deviate from the preapproved script aren't likely to serve long tenures in the position.
- Photo: The West Wing / NBC477 VOTES
The Relationship With The Vice President Is Fraught Because The VP Wants The Top Spot
In The West Wing, much of President Bartlet's first term is riddled with conflict between him and Vice President John Hoynes, who definitely has his sights set on the presidency. Even after Hoynes's resignation due to a scandal, his replacement, Bob Russell, quickly turns from well-liked moderate lawmaker to hawkish presidential nominee hopeful.
Historically speaking, only 15 former vice presidents have gone on to serve in the higher seat, and eight of those were due to the passing or resignation of the president. Some presidents and vice presidents have even at least appeared to be close colleagues or friends.
- Photo: Escape from L.A. / Paramount Pictures549 VOTES
POTUS Can Ignore Checks And Balances
The executive branch ignoring checks and balances is a staple of corruption-riddled dramas like House of Cards, but the film Escape from L.A. shows a particularly extreme version of this misuse of power. In the 1996 dystopian movie, the president is elected to a lifetime appointment, relocates the capital, and institutes a series of "Moral America" laws that leave the country in a puritanical hellscape.
Yes, Escape from L.A. is high-concept fiction, and some US presidents have wielded power beyond what the Constitution seems to provide, but it's still worth pointing out that the checks and balances embedded in American democracy are designed to prevent something like this from happening.
- Photo: House of Cards / Netflix665 VOTES
The Office Will Do Anything For Personal Gain And Protection
Although the Office of the President has made plenty of devious moves all across film and television, the cabinet in House of Cards basically operates like a mafia family. Across six seasons, the Underwoods (with help from Chief of Staff and amateur hitman Doug Stamper) murder a journalist, an escort, a sitting congressman, and even a dog.
Thankfully, in the real world, POTUS and company don't seem to do much outright murdering. Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that the #ClintonBodyCount is somewhere from 30 to 40 political enemies, but there's no factual evidence to support such a claim. So presidents don't seem to have the itchy trigger finger of Frank Underwood.