Readers in the US will know that its citizens have just observed the federal holiday widely known as Presidents’ Day (depending on the state, you may know it as Presidents Day, President’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, or Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday). Whatever the name, the holiday falls on the third Monday in February, and celebrates…well, again, it sort of depends where you are, and how you feel about various early presidents. Hooray for the perfectly rational and well-oiled machine of US policy that is not at all mystifying to the rest of us!
When it comes to celebrating the legacies of fictional presidents, well… a system of checks and balances that works as designed doesn’t seem to make for a plot-friendly setting (although it must be reassuring to those who live under it). But authors are in no way limited by reality. They can tweak their settings in any way that makes for a thrilling adventure tale…and they have! You might enjoy these five venerable SF works in which presidential careers do not go quite according to plan.
Doomsday Morning by C. L. Moore (1957)
America rewarded President Raleigh for rebuilding the United States after the Five Days War by re-electing him five times. Raleigh’s Communications US (COMUS) shaped American media and helped voters make the right choice. Now, however, however, Raleigh is old and dying. America will soon need its first new president in decades.
Comus boss Tom Nye is determined to be the next president. Not only determined, but sure of winning. Comus will guide the media to support Nye. No other candidate will have a chance.
There is just one tiny problem with Nye’s plan. A problem that must remain SPOILERed. But Nye knows how to fix it: with the help of washed-up actor Howard Rohan. Hijinks ensue.
Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel & Charles W Bailey II (1962)
President Frazier (R) saved America and the world when he avoided World War Three; he agreed to a partition of Iran. In so doing, he ensured that he would never be elected to anything again. His replacement, President Lyman (D) has done his best to make America forget all about Frazier’s ignominious end. In just two years, Lyman has forced through ratification of a global nuclear armament treaty, alienated the military by denying them a much-needed pay raise, and allowed a civilian-defence-worker strike to drag on and on. Many Americans regard the treaty as treasonous; loss of military confidence is weakening him; the strike makes the president look even weaker.
Colonel “Jiggs” Casey believes that Lyman has a far more pressing problem than the robust electoral thrashing Lyman’s 29% approval rating promises. Casey strongly suspects that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an alliance of business, religious, and political figures are plotting to transform the US into a dictatorship.
Casey cannot prove any of this. All he has is circumstantial evidence, none of it damning. He does not have much time to find the proof: if he’s right, he has seven days to save the republic.
The Multiple Man by Ben Bova (1977)
After decades of inept, poorly prepared presidents, President Halliday will be a needed change. He’s a modern-day Renaissance man, with extensive knowledge and superb skills. Surely a Halliday administration will guide America safely through the challenges of the 21st century.
Press Secretary Albano is dumbfounded when he discovers what seems to be Halliday’s dead body. He’s even more dumbfounded to discover that Halliday is still alive; the dead man must be a perfect double of unknown origin. His dumbfounding triples when Albano finds out that the corpse he found is not the first of the corpses popping up here and there. Who are the dead men? Where do they come from? Why isn’t the administration paying any attention to these bizarre occurrences?
It’s not at all clear that Albano will survive learning the answers.
The Dead Zone by Stephen King (1979)
Greg Stillson has many presidential qualities. He is ambitious, he is politically adept, he has a clear vision of the direction in which he plans to lead America, and he has the iron resolve to make his plans reality. With Stillson at the tiller, America’s destiny is assured!
Johnny Smith, who woke from a five-year coma with the gift of precognition, has a unique perspective on Stillson. Smith’s ability to see the future reveals to him two horrifying truths. Firstly, Stillson will be elected president; secondly, once Stillson takes power, he will begin a global thermonuclear war. Which would be bad.
As far as Smith can tell, his precognition is infallible. Being able to see what’s coming does not mean he can prevent it from happening.
The Last President by Michael Kurland & S. W. Barton (1980)
It’s hard to believe that a bungled burglary at a famed Washington hotel could bring down a president. In The Last President, one does not need to imagine such a thing because it never officially happened. The burglary is hushed up, the president’s connection to the break-in is never front-page news, and the unnamed president is free to pursue his second term without the complications of a snowballing scandal.
Except…the narrow escape does not seem to have taught the president to use caution. He feels that he is invulnerable, a delusion in which he is supported by a legion of sycophants. They feed the president’s paranoia while enabling his most regrettable impulses.
Some see what is going on and are determined to stop it. But what can even the CIA, the military, and most of the bureaucracy do to rein in a president heedless of convention and even the law itself? A completely unrealistic tale, but a gripping one.
No doubt you have read and enjoyed books about fictional presidents whose careers are as troubled as they are entertaining. Feel free to berate me in the comments for overlooking them.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.