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The Character Issue

"Send a character to the White House!” I read in the Open Door Bookstore newsletter.

Of course, I thought the Supreme Court had already done that. But in fact the newsletter piece is an invitation to kids in grades 1-8 to vote for a fictional character they think would be best suited to be president.

Were I a gambling girl I’d bet on Harry Potter all the way.

But the contest got me thinking—of all the fictional characters I know, which one is made of solid, presidential stock?

Wouldn’t you think that somewhere, hiding in the pages of Dostoyevski or Rudyard Kipling or Herman Melville—even D.H. Lawrence—is the Man Who Would Be President?

I decided to give this some serious thought. With enough creativity and research, it ought to be possible to people an entire cabinet with fictional characters. Certainly finding some presidential material would be a snap.

My first thought was Henry Adams. Yes, that Adams: He counts among his ancestors two former presidents, not just one.

There’s a bit of a snag because he was a real person, not a fictional character. But in The Education of Henry Adams he writes about himself in the third person, so I thought maybe he could pass.

Then I realized there were other more troubling reasons—apart from his having been a real man—why he would never work. He was too well-educated. He was effete. He was critical of capitalism. And as if that were not enough to ruin his chances, his wife committed suicide. So much for a first lady. He had just too much of an image problem to overcome.

After that I thought I would have better luck if I just stuck to the rules and found a truly fictional character.

So then I thought of Alyosha from The Brothers Karamozov. Because if virtue is what you’re looking for they don’t come much purer than that. Problem is, he wears a dress. A monk’s robe, really, but it’s still a little over the top in a president. And he’s very emotional. There’s a lot of struggling and introspection and compassion. It’s all very Russian, of course, but that’s exactly the point. I figured I’d have to give Alyosha a pass.

I did give some thought to some Shakespeare characters. But they are such a damn nuanced lot! There’s nothing black-and-white about them. Othello is a braggart, which is good for a campaign, but he kills his wife, which is bad. MacBeth is ambitious enough, but he’s also a murderer with a suicidal wife and a trio of witches following him around. Bad chi.

And Hamlet? Apart from his many personal issues that a good anti-depressant might have helped, would you vote for someone named Hamlet?

Names matter. That got me thinking that since the religious right seems to have a death grip on politics these days I thought biblical name associations might work. I toyed briefly with Jude—as in Jude, the Obscure. But you can see the problem with that.

I thought of Ahab. He didn’t work out, either. There was that whole whale-obsession thing in Moby Dick. And the biblical Ahab persecuted prophets—though perhaps we have seen some of that in the current administration.

But what really blew Ahab out of the water, so to speak, was that he was married to Jezebel. And we all know that she was even more of a firebrand than Teresa Heinz Kerry.

Then I started thinking I was simply being retrograde: I’d been searching for male characters, as if only a man could do the job. It was time to consider the ladies.

Unfortunately the first two that popped into mind were terribly unsuitable: Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. Fascinating women, both of them. But just as Henry Adams’ self-destructive wife would have made a problematic first lady, Emma and Anna’s suicides spelled disaster for their viability as presidential candidates.

I figured it was time to turn to American women characters.

Ironically, some of the characters most celebrated by feminists are lousy presidential material: Kate Chopin’s suicidal, self-involved Edna Pontellier is hardly a poster child for family values. And that chick who peeled off all the yellow wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story? She’s a real no-go.

When you get right down to it, the pickings are slim. There are the Edith Wharton women: clawing, clinging Zeena in Ethan Frome, the tragically wronged Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, and the greedy, social-climbing Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country.

Henry James’ Isabel Archer has little economic sense. Theodore Dreiser’s title character from Sister Carrie doesn’t sing out “land of opportunity.”

And Hawthorne? Problems from A (for Hester Prynne’s adultery) to Z (The Blithedale Romance’s Zenobia starts strong, but ends up just one more lovelorn lass sleeping with the fishes). And Hepzibah Pyncheon in The House Of the Seven Gables? “Pitiful” and “dowdy” run neck-and-neck in describing her.

Anyway, I finally realized that the problem with all of these fictional characters is that they are just too real to run for president.

They don’t have pasted-on smiles and Stay-Puffed hair. They can’t pretend they don’t have problems. They don’t pretend to have all the answers. And for all that they are made of paper and ink, they breathe. Maybe that’s because they have authors, not handlers.

But none of them would stand a chance. We’re a nation habituated to image and we clearly prefer it over substance. Flesh and blood, heart and soul are no rival for the apparitions of perfection that we need—or have been led to believe we need—our candidates to be. Heroes. Cowboys. Warriors.

It’s enough to make you want to pick up a book.

In the meantime, I hope a bunch of kids send their ballots into the Open Door contest, writing out reasons why this or that character—flawed, interesting, believable—might be an able leader.

That way maybe, when they are grown up and it’s their chance to vote for real they will vote for real.

—Jo Page
You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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