a character to the White House!” I read in the Open Door Bookstore
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
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
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
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
Anyway, I finally realized that the problem with all of these
fictional characters is that they are just too real to run
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
That way maybe, when they are grown up and it’s their chance
to vote for real they will vote for real.
can contact Jo Page at firstname.lastname@example.org