In “Asteroid City,” directorial control competes with the free play that gives life to cinema.
Presidents and Other Fictions
A modern presidential election is all-consuming, a machine that generates so much noise that voters can be forgiven for complaining that they cannot even hear themselves think. The natural reaction to such overload is to shut out politics altogether, yet one way or another a decision will be made on November 3—though if we’re really unlucky, we might not know the outcome of that decision until days or weeks later.
Modern Age is pleased to offer some relief that nonetheless has a measure of relevance. We asked some twenty of our friends and contributors to weigh in on the best choice for president—but not the best choice on the ballot this November. Instead, we asked them to choose the best character from all of creative literature for the role. The result, we hope, is a symposium that’s diverting and amusing, but that may also reveal something valuable about the nature of presidential leadership and the politics of a free society. It certainly reveals some underlying tendencies in conservative and libertarian thought today, although our contributors are not all so readily classified.
Our friends were free to select any character from any book, film, play, television program, poem, or folk tale—and we even let them enter the equivalent of a “write-in” candidate who didn’t fit the formal criteria, if they preferred to imagine some other impossible (yet illuminating) scenario, as some did. So here is a different sort of election survey, for a fictional president, in the service of real principles. —Daniel McCarthy
George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life
This election, I’d love to cast my vote for George Bailey, the everyday hero of Bedford Falls. Filmmaker Frank Capra is our modern Tocqueville, and in the person of George Bailey we see a model for the American citizen: personal integrity, marital faithfulness, active participation in local community, strong support for the downtrodden, and an unbending piety that refuses to abandon genuine goodness, even when it would be personally expedient. We know that George is a supporter of small business, an advocate for those working hard to enter the middle class, and a fierce defender of free and competitive markets against monopolizing power. We also know that George keeps his word, that he stands up to bullies, and that he’s not afraid to get into a scrap or two. But most importantly, we understand that George is a man who knows sorrow, who has struggled valiantly to bear the weight of existence, and who in the darkest times was able to learn to depend on a community to get through his dark night of the soul. George is not an Ivy League grad, and he didn’t do consulting at McKinsey, and he doesn’t have a vacation home on the beach. But George is a good man. And we desperately need good men at the helm.
Anthony Barr is a graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University and a recent fellow with the Hertog Foundation. He lives outside Philadelphia and works as an assistant teacher at Main Line Classical Academy.
Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
Jolly Old Frodo Baggins for president! A natural aristocrat—imbued with all the virtues associated with such a class and a distinction—Frodo Baggins would make an extraordinary chief executive. When he realized that he held within his grasp the One Ring, forged in the fires of Mount Doom and capable of ruling all the lands to their oppression and ruin, Baggins selflessly accepted the burden and fled to the land of the ring’s origin—that is, into the heart of hell itself—to destroy and undo the ring’s power, once and for all.
Along the way, he proved his diplomatic worth as well, befriending other Hobbits, disgruntled farmers, cranky inn owners, Elven royalty, enigmas and their companions, mystified animals, relentless dwarfs, would-be kings, mysterious wizards, and conflicted warriors. On his quest, Baggins even suffered the companionship of a mentally ill Hobbit, one who had once possessed the power of the ring and talked to himself incessantly. It was pity and love he showed to his enemy, costing Baggins one of his fingers and nearly his life.
Wielding an ancient Elven blade, a dwarvish coat of armor, and the light of the first created thing, Baggins and his best companion, Sam Gamgee, fought their way through orcs, goblins, trolls, and spiders. Never did the courage of Baggins waiver. Upon returning to his homeland—only to find it a fascistic gulag—Baggins led a mighty uprising against tyranny. Nonviolent on his part, Baggins ushered in a sort of Hobbitic Velvet Revolution. Quite properly, he restored his country to right order. What more could we want in a leader: selflessness, intelligence, piety, perseverance, justice, and, most of all, love. Jolly Old Frodo Baggins for president!
Bradley Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.
Monty Bodkin, Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin
Bertie Wooster’s suggestion:
Donald Trump was blackballed to a fare-thee-well when Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright put him up for the Drones Club. I cannot say, on the honor of a Wooster, that Catsmeat was drunk. Playful, is more probable: one of those jokes he thought would come trailing clouds of glory, or whatever it is the man said. Even Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, as amiable a creature as wind and weather permit, voted against the Trump blighter.
That’s not to say Joe Biden would have made a Drone sans peur et sans reproche. When not even the Reverend Harold Pinker—“Stinker,” as we in the know called him—can find a good word to say, you’d best leave off banging the doorknocker, hadn’t you?
Which leaves us the question, as surely as night chases day and Offy Prosser chases a dropped sixpence, of who should be our next president.
I nominate Monty Bodkin. He’s rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, if that’s the bloke, what with having inherited from an aunt who won the heart of an American millionaire while twirling in the chorus line at the Adelphi. He kisses babies with the best of them, and he knows his way around an office, having once helped edit the journal Tiny Tots. He was even a private detective for a time, which ought to help him discern the character of those one comes across in politics.
All in all, we could do worse than Monty Bodkin as president of the Drones Club. Or president of the United States, as far as I can tell. At least he would be better than what currently seems on offer.
Joseph Bottum is the author, most recently, of The Decline of the Novel.
There are two movies I use to explain Washington, D.C., to those unfamiliar with how the city truly works. One is, perhaps predictably, The Godfather. The other? Tina Fey’s masterpiece of teen-girl bitchiness, Mean Girls. Together, the movies’ plots and characters capture the essential nature of what makes D.C. function: the revenge-driven, eye-for-an-eye Mafia-style politics that exist alongside the petty rules that enforce the hierarchies of a high school lunchroom.
Vote wrong? You can’t sit with us! Don’t raise us enough money for the party? You broke my heart, Fredo. Everyone wants to make you a deal you can’t refuse while secretly plotting to push you in front of a bus. Should you violate the city’s unwritten and unspoken rules (on Wednesdays, we wear pink!), revenge will be served (cold, of course). As a senator, you may have elected those party leaders, but don’t be jealous. They can’t help it that they’re popular.
We’ve spent years governing Washington aspirationally, but perhaps we should govern it as it actually is: a giant high school with deadly, high-priced vendettas. Put the Godfather himself, Vito Corleone, in the Oval Office to manage the political alliances, while the head of the Plastics, Regina George, takes on the role of vice president to execute the side-eye tyrannies that keep the proletariat in line.
Washington, D.C., is about two things: power and pettiness. Vito and Regina are thus an unstoppable force. Kiss the ring. And slay, kween.
Rachel Bovard is the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute.
F. H. Buckley
Modern Age asks me whom I’d rather see elected in November. The question asks me to wish for a different America. Which indeed I do. Let me therefore cast my hypothetical vote for Dwight Eisenhower, almost the last gentleman and certainty the last progressive Republican.
Eisenhower called himself a “modern Republican,” but the progressive label is more apt.
He opposed the party’s right-wingers and quietly dispatched Joe McCarthy. In his diary he wrote, “the Republican Party must be known as a progressive organization or it is sunk. ”He resisted calls to eliminate New Deal programs and in some cases saw them expanded.
There were no wars on his watch, and he was a progressive on civil rights. He deserves much of the credit for Brown v. Board of Education, both for appointing Earl Warren to the court and for sending in his assistant attorney general to argue that public segregation was unconstitutional. Then when state and local officials resisted a federal court order, Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School.
While Eisenhower’s progressive credentials are undeniable, he was also a conservative whose 1956 Economic Report was a staunch defense of free-market principles. What he recognized is that welfare programs cannot sustain themselves without the money to pay for them. In the long run, low-wage earners benefit more from a faster growth rate in national income than from redistributing existing national wealth in their favor.
When a hip John Kennedy was elected, we were asked to forget how great the Fifties had been. The Sixties did indeed transform America, but not always for the better, and we’re permitted to remember Eisenhower’s presidency as a halcyon time before it all went south. And nearly everything that followed, not just the drugs and the riots but also Barry Goldwater and W.F. Buckley, was a wrong turn.
F. H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School. His most recent book is American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup.
Eddie Mannix, Hail, Caesar
The central fact of American government in the early twenty-first century is that it doesn’t work. Nothing gets done, and the things that do get done happen extra-legislatively and even extra-constitutionally, as workarounds, kludges, agreed-upon violations. It’s possible that this will continue until America is radically refounded, in the style of Lincoln and FDR if not Augustus Caesar. But pending that kind of dramatic development, the president that our age of dysfunction requires is obviously Eddie Mannix, the beleaguered but omnicompetent studio boss played by Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ best recent movie, Hail, Caesar. If our constitutional system is to really work again without a radical overhaul, it will take a figure like Mannix—an inside man and institutionalist capable of seeing all the angles and balancing the task of administration with the demands of celebrity culture. If kludges and workarounds are the best we can hope for, he’s the man for that job, too. A pious Catholic who can negotiate with rabbis and ministers, a company man with practical-minded morals but high ideals, a guy who can arrange a marriage one moment and foil a Communist plot the next: we probably won’t do better than Eddie Mannix in 2020, and we could do a whole lot worse.
Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist and the author of The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.
Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces
Verily, things look bad for America now, but as an unjustly neglected prophet has averred, “Even when Fortuna spins us downward, the wheel sometimes halts for a moment, and we find ourselves in a good, small cycle within the larger bad cycle.” This annus horribilis of 2020 has delivered us a glimmer of hope amid Fortune’s failings: America may now finally be ready to heed that prophet’s political message. I speak, of course, of Ignatius J. Reilly of Constantinople Street in New Orleans.
Ignatius, the crusading hero of John Kennedy Toole’s comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces, is an arch-medievalist who considers himself in a permanent state of war with the modern world. “I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss,” he mused about America. What was Ignatius’s solution? “What I want is a good strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry, and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life.”
Well, yes, why not? No short-fingered Manhattan vulgarians or mush-brained Delaware levelers. There are Habsburgs extant, you know.
More seriously, Ignatius’s quest to restore the degraded social order has a serious philosophical point. A society built outside of the Divine—and the transcendent order rooted in it (and made immanently manifest in mathematics and architecture)—cannot help but be tasteless, indecent, and chaotic. It inevitably leads to devaluing contemplation, creating a world of sensual chaos—like, say, the French Quarter, into which our stout and gassy Don Quixote waddles to defend chivalric virtues against the forces of capitalism, sensualism, and ideology.
We cannot expect a man of genius like Ignatius to arise to lead us in this woebegone age, but as an amateur gastronome whose last two books concern the decline and fall of our political and social order, I regard I.J. Reilly as my muse. “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century,” the great man confided. “When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” Scorn not the cheese dip, you villeins! It’s all part of building a Rich Inner Life, which this fall may be the only consolation left to us Kirkean reactionaries.
Rod Dreher is the author of the newly published Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.
Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation
Last year I suffered through the entirety of the TV show Parks and Rec, about the titular governmental department of a fictional Indiana town. (I did this more or less because I hate cardiovascular exercise and will embrace any distraction while doing it.) Honestly, it’s not a terrible comedy, but it embraces a sunny and optimistic view of American governance that is entirely liberal and entirely grating for anyone with a realistic view of human nature.
The show’s one redeeming grace was the character of Ron Swanson, the one self-described libertarian in the office, who served as one-man Greek chorus pooh-poohing the gang’s wacky utopian schemes to waste taxpayer dollars. Clearly, even the show’s writers didn’t believe the liberalism the show was selling because Swanson got all the best lines, amply demonstrating he’s not just fit to rule a small town but the entire country.
He’s honest: “There’s only one thing I hate more than lying: skim milk. Which is water that’s lying about being milk.” He has an appropriately expansive definition of liberty: “I call this turf ‘n’ turf. It’s a 16-ounce T-bone and a 24-ounce porterhouse. Also, whiskey and a cigar. I am going to consume all of this at the same time because I am a free American.” He cares about being right, not being liked: “Don’t start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness.” He doesn’t appeal to emotion, stating that crying is only “acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.” Finally, he doesn’t believe in government taking an active role in our lives: “Normally, if given the choice between doing something and nothing, I’d choose to do nothing. But I will do something if it helps someone else do nothing. I’d work all night, if it meant nothing got done.”
If Swanson were president, we’d be rousting a Borglum and dynamiting Rushmore.
Mark Hemingway is senior writer at RealClearInvestigations.
Well, hell, since Dan McCarthy has generously suspended the laws of time and physics for this symposium, I’ll jump back to June 15, 1787, insert myself into the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, and endorse the New Jersey Plan, the anti-imperial road not taken, which provided not for a “king-president,” to use an Anti-Federalist locution, but for a plural executive, chosen by Congress for a single fixed term and removable by Congress if so directed by a majority of state governors. Had the delegates more faithfully represented public sentiment and opted for the New Jersey Plan over James Madison’s nationalizing Virginia Plan, the citizens of these loosely United States, largely indifferent to political maneuverings at the feeble national level and often unable even to recall the names of the obscure co-presidents, today would be enjoying the glorious offerings of mellow and lovely October—unpasteurized cider, amateur football, carved pumpkins, resplendently colored leaves, and the ghost stories of Hawthorne, Poe, and Kirk—and ignoring the appalling and dispiriting presidential campaign.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, including Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI Books).
Archie Goodwin, the Nero Wolfe novels
The best presidents have tended to be tall. Think of Washington and Lincoln. However, the worst presidents were also stately figures. Think of Hoover and LBJ. Meantime, some of our best-educated leaders, like Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, have been among our most misguided and inept.
Perhaps it is indeed a matter of matching the time with the man.
If so, I would like to suggest Archie Goodwin. For those not familiar, Archie is a seemingly real person. The narrator of the mystery novels of Rex Stout, he is the handsome, witty factotum of genius detective Nero Wolfe. Where Wolfe is exceedingly brilliant, Archie is merely clever and arch.
Why then would Archie make a good president? Because we don’t need genius. We need a likable everyman with common sense.
We can reduce inequality by cutting down on illegal immigration and raising tariffs with China. We can help workers get health insurance and our children get better early schooling by allowing people more choices—as we do with car insurance and with colleges. Archie would understand that, and he would charmingly persuade others of these simple practical ideas, bringing Americans together. And, above all else, that’s what we need.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.
I’ll propose Leia Organa. Her résumé as a princess and senator is impressive, her record as a diplomat is solid if not flawless, her energy as a general is boundless, and her thoughtful, considered dedication to the cause of local political autonomy and freedom is unrivaled. She has a proven ability to win over even the most hardboiled misogynist, and her unfailing ability to rise to the occasion gives me confidence that she could handle even these United States in 2020.
I’ll admit I was sorely tempted to succumb to the ultimate libertarian cliché and propose the Ayn Rand heroine Dagny Taggart. (You must admit she’d be good at the job.) But since she is canonically the vice president in charge of operations for her family’s railroad in Atlas Shrugged, I’ll suggest her for veep here as well. Taggart can handle economic policy, and I imagine they’d both enjoy working alongside someone rational and competent for once.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is editor in chief of Reason.
Odysseus, The Odyssey
There are better political parables in Homer’s epics than the tale of Odysseus’s homecoming. But no Homeric character is better suited to be president than the king of Ithaca, and the situation that greets Odysseus upon his return serves as an allegory for our own circumstances. The constitution of the kingdom is threatened by ambitious usurpers—suitors who wish to compel the queen, Penelope, to abandon the old order and marry one of them. Every political community is threatened by “suitors,” who might be ideologues, or might be the rich, or anyone else who wishes to turn private eminence into de facto or de jure dominance. In a kingdom, Penelope is the queen; in a republic, she is the people. Her virtue is Odysseus’s salvation—if she had been a Clytemnestra, he would have suffered the fate of Agamemnon. When the people succumb to pressure from the suitors, to intimidation and seduction, the regime is lost.
But in Ithaca as in America, the elite is the problem: the suitors, not the queen or the people. Odysseus employs his characteristic mix of courage and creativity—in battle, force and deception—to kill the men who would take his place. After he does so, he discovers his elderly father, the retired king, living in squalor. Yet Laertes, who is tradition itself, is rejuvenated by the reunion with his son and their preparations to face the suitors’ vengeful kin. In this, they fight alongside several loyal subjects, who in our analogy are the institutions that remain faithful to the old public order. The final clash is called off, however, by divine intervention, and peace returns with legitimate rule.
A president, like Odysseus, has to respect what is venerable, renew it as best he can, and safeguard the people from the lusts of the powerful. Politics is not war, but the same psychological strength and dexterity that lie behind the hero’s martial prowess give rise to other qualities that are equally indispensable to the statesman in a civil context. Above all, a presidential Odysseus has to recognize the suitors for the threat that they are and deal with them accordingly—not as Odysseus did, but by curbing their predatory desires through policy and public leadership.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age.
Robert W. Merry
Gus McCrae, Lonesome Dove
I nominate for president Texas Rangers Cpt. Augustus (“Gus”) McCrae, courageous, resourceful, clever, charismatic, “cheerful in all weathers,” generally law-abiding, and on the right side of the issues. He helped subdue the Comanche Nation (with the exception, of course, of the renegade Blue Duck) and contributed to the security of the U.S. southern border. He knows how to charm people while slyly manipulating them (rather like Henry Clay) and embodies America’s expansionist spirit (unlike Henry Clay). And there’s a bonus: his longtime sidekick, Woodrow Call, would make an ideal vice president. He’s less imaginative than McCrae and less lively, but he possesses a quiet force that is commanding, and he’s a man of his time, with a simple wisdom and absolute rectitude (except when he’s stealing cattle in Mexico, which, after all, were stolen from north of the border in the first place). These men could stir the soul of America, from Texas to Montana. They would return the country to the time of the old verities, when hearty men and women pushed inexorably into the western expanse while never complaining and never explaining. They just quietly went about the task of building a country.
Robert W. Merry is the author, most recently, of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.
John J. Miller
Hazel, Watership Down
America needs a rodent: Hazel from Watership Down, by Richard Adams. He’s not the biggest or the smartest rabbit in his warren, but he’s the best leader. Nobody appoints him to the role and he doesn’t ask for it. Rather, his leadership emerges for all to see as he decides when to stay and when to fight, as well as when to take advice and when to follow his instincts. He blends courage and wisdom, leading his group from danger to safety.
John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is founder and executive director of the Student Free Press Association, a nonprofit group best known for its news website, The College Fix.
Cordelia, King Lear
My first instinct on getting this assignment was to look to Shakespeare, and particularly to the figures of restoration who followed tragedy. But these turn out to be a decidedly questionable lot. Shakespeare portrays Henry VII, who succeeds the tyrant Richard III, as a blandly cheerful figure with almost no character at all. The most plausible reason to impute for his success, from what we have seen in the play, is the country’s sheer exhaustion rather than any virtue of his own. Surely we can do better.
About Fortinbras, who the dying Hamlet predicts (or chooses) to succeed him, we know little more than that he is willing to sacrifice thousands of men to capture a worthless patch of land. We’ve had quite enough of that, I should think. As for Malcolm, who retakes the throne from the usurping tyrant Macbeth, while we know that he has some small measure of cunning from his test of Macduff, the only plans he voices for his reign are to Anglicize the heretofore fiercely independent Scots. We’ve surely had quite enough of that as well.
So my election lights on a beloved but failed restoration figure, whose tragic demise struck audiences as so intolerable that for over a century only a bowdlerized version of her play held the stage. If Nahum Tate can bring her back to life, then so can I, to soothe the rages of our own mad sovereign, by whom I mean the people themselves. I can imagine no more fit rebuke to the current president’s legacy, and no better medicine for our times, than Cordelia’s motto: love, and be silent.
Mrs. Poyser, Adam Bede
In considering the various literary figures who might be called upon to command the American presidency in 2020, countless protagonists come to mind. Most, however, are easily dismissed for some reason or another. The most humble and virtuous—Willa Cather’s Bishop Jean Marie Latour, say—seem unlikely to ever embrace such a vocation. The idealistic, mad Don Quixote de la Mancha came to mind as one unorthodox option, but he is probably a bit too unorthodox. P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins would be the perfect person to drain swamps and quash government scandals, but she is perhaps a bit too flighty for the job. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Treebeard would proffer just the sort of slow, deliberating presidency America needs—but there would likely be rioting on the streets.
So, after some deliberation, I decided upon George Eliot’s Mrs. Poyser: a farmer’s wife and dairy owner in the novel Adam Bede. Mrs. Poyser is tireless and courageous, erudite and cunning. Surrounded by the capricious, cowardly, and contemptuous, she remains ever steadfast. She suffers no fools—and yet, as a dedicated and loving mother, has a deep tenderness that constantly shines through. She has enough self-possession and pride to suggest she might take an important government job, if called upon, and rise to the occasion. Above all, one gets the definite impression that Mrs. Poyser would defend the defenseless with integrity, and proffer an abundance of wisdom and common sense. And that’s all one could really ask for over the next four years.
Gracy Olmstead is author of the forthcoming Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind.
Lettice Douffet, Lettice and Lovage
I nominate for president a woman of meager means but great moral courage, an artist of melancholy longing, an enemy of the hideous Modern, a preserver of the grand and lover of the Permanent Things: Lettice Douffet, tour guide, Royal Preservation Trust, London.
She descends the Grand Staircase of Fustian Hall as if from the Third Heaven, a knight errant tilting at windbags. In mere minutes she makes immanent the eternal and eminent the mundane. The gods of the copybook headings—gawkers, gapers, bureaucrats—cavil, “She’s a wistful fabulist, a weaver of whimsy if not outright deceit—surely we’ve endured enough of that these past four years! The woman has lost her grip on reality!” But fantasy is no lie, merely a greater reality prefigured, and who better to inspire a generation to a nobler, higher end than Miss Douffet, who believes “fantasy floods in where fact leaves a vacuum,” thus prying open every closed system and loosening ideology’s stifling grip.
And what is America but a nation paralyzed by administrative overlords, woke algorithms, and stupefying media, its authentic voice squelched by absurd Orwellian neologisms. The word became dreck and fled screaming from us. “Language alone frees one!” Douffet declaims, and what is in more need of repair than our regal English language, reduced as it is to epithets, expletives, and texted LOLs?
What do our uprooted hearts long for? A balanced budget? A larger GDP? A victory abroad? I argue: a home. And it is Lettice Douffet who will rebuild ours, because she knows better than most that “history gives you a home.” To lose our history to the iconoclasts, once Roundheads now flatheads, to be set adrift in a country looted of its past, is to be condemned to an eternal internal exile.
Lettice Douffet will inspire our nation, fuel our imaginations, and tell the story of promise betrayed but hope restored. She will be both Virgil and Beatrice, guiding us through the Inferno of ruined cities of man, beyond a purgatory of deferred dreams, into a glorious Zion where we will see not through a glass darkly but face to face, her face, as it greets us with the dulcet goad: “Tokens of appreciation will not be declined.”
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of Modern Age.
My ideal president, the chief executive of my daydreams, might well be lurking in the pages of Anthony Powell, or CP Snow, possibly Jane Austen, certainly Anthony Trollope. I mean Harold Macmillan. I don’t know how he would break through in American politics, especially since he once served three-quarters of two presidential terms as British prime minister. But why not?
His background was halfway there and perfectly balanced: he married an aristocrat and did a good impression of one; but his mother was from small-town Indiana and his father was a product of Scotland’s mercantile class. His education was ideal (Eton and Balliol), and while serving in the army’s smartest regiment, he was wounded severely in the Great War and never talked about it.
His voice—low, tremulous, and reliably droll—was perfectly pitched for dismissive responses to impertinent journalists. He was capable of the occasional historical reference or classical pun; his wardrobe was formal rather than elegant, fashionably old-fashioned, and suitably threadbare. He was Low Tory and High Anglican, a man of principle fully capable of a stab in the back. His best-known slogan—“You never had it so good” (1959)—combined American brashness with British insouciance. And he would be the first presidential moustache since Taft.
Our modern presidents have lapsed into royalty, dutifully buttoned up in their dark blue suits, half-quizmasters/half-clergymen, receiving the NBA in the White House. It would be fun to put Macmillan on the throne for a couple of months.
Philip Terzian is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.
Kelly Jane Torrance
Nero Wolfe, Fer-de-Lance
For those of us skeptical of politicians—they’re human, after all—could there be a better president than George Emerson, with his “everlasting Why,” from E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View? Memorably brought to life by Julian Sands in the Merchant-Ivory film, the philosophical George lets no silly convention go by unchallenged; he could drain the swamp with a few withering questions.
But Americans like their presidents to be a bit more complicated than the openhearted George. So I nominate Rex Stout’s immortal New York City detective, Nero Wolfe. He might have been born in Montenegro, but he’s an American patriot: Not only did he assist Army intelligence, forgoing his usual high fees, during World War II, the gourmand speaks regularly and rapturously about the singular joys of American cuisine.
He’s a genius, but he understands his limits as few politicians do. As he once told his sidekick, Archie Goodwin—who must accompany Wolfe as vice president, if only to make the trips to world capitals his chunky chief would refuse—“If I were to begin borrowing money I would end by devising means of persuading the Secretary of the Treasury to lend me the gold reserve.” And he’d be successful, too—so thank goodness he’d never try.
“To assert dignity is to lose it,” Wolfe once said. He’d be the rare White House occupant who didn’t bring an oversized ego with him. (His ego is almost as large as he is, but it’s just the right size.) He’d more than make up for it with an unsentimental pragmatism, but one not devoid of feeling. He knows how to delegate and he knows how to reason. And most important, he knows when he can do nothing. I can think of few more important qualities for a president.
Kelly Jane Torrance is a member of the New York Post editorial board.
Lancelot Lamar, Lancelot
Long thought a fictional character, Lancelot Lamar stunned the world when he emerged as a retired attorney in Louisiana. He held no grudge against novelists, he said. “Walker [Percy] knew a good story when he saw one.”
In 2020’s post-election chaos, Lamar was Trump’s surprise choice to replace a squeamish Bill Barr as acting U.S. attorney general, and (weeks later) an exhausted Vice President Pence. Lamar oversaw Trump’s federalizing fifty states’ National Guards and arrest of eleven Blue State governors. When dozens of Democrats in Congress declared Trump’s election illegitimate, Lamar convinced him to “embrace the Suck.” Trump pressed the GOP in Congress to “lock out” errant legislators, proceeding without them. “The Yankees did it to us in 1868,” Lamar explained.
While Trump sat back cackling, a rump Congress enacted the “Third Revolution,” Lamar’s long-time agenda. It offered unborn children 14th Amendment protection. (In states where pro-choice governors balked, “peaceful protestors” backed by National Guard units dismantled abortion clinics quickly.) The “Covenant Marriage,” “Constitutional Carry,” and “Stand Your Ground” acts passed soon after seemed almost an afterthought. By the time Trump resigned, and President Lamar appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court, America seemed like a different country altogether.
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