Make-Believe Presidents

When you spend a lot of time hanging around a collection of books, particular items sometimes take up a place in your imagination whether or not you ever get around to reading them.  For example, I spent a significant chunk of the 1980s in a used book store where a copy of Nicholas von Hoffman’s 1978 Make-Believe Presidents sat on a shelf. I never read that book; I’m not sure I ever opened it. But I can call the cover illustration to mind easily. It looked like this:

makebelievepresidents1

That book was apparently a study of the political realities that limit the actual power of US presidents. The title lingers in my mind as a heading, both for that topic, and for the genre of fictional works featuring imaginary characters in that office.

Since I posted something here the other day about another imaginary US president and his resonance with current events, I’ve spent a little time browsing through Wikipedia’s lists of hundreds of such characters. This guy sounds good:

President Geotekeezu-Chub’Chub-Pegaree (aka Andrew Wheatley/Geotkie)

  • President in George Morgan’s 1935 story Surprise in the White House

  • President Andrew Wheatley is elected in 2004 (a future date at the time of writing) after two terms as a Senator from Wisconsin. He is considered a mediocre politician, neither very Liberal not conspicuously Conservative, and no particularly noteworthy events are expected from his term – and so it seems in his first year. But in February 2006, a sensation does break out: Secret Service bodyguards apprehend Ward Bartolomeu, a White House confidential secretary, in the act of attempting to rape the First Lady, Mary Wheatley. When his trial opens in a blaze of nationwide publicity, Bartolomeu enters a bizarre plea: he asserts that the President and his wife are in fact humanoid extraterrestrials, descendants of the crew of an interstellar ship which crash-landed in Oliver Cromwell‘s England. Bartolomeu further asserts that the Presidential couple are in possession of a powerful unearthly aphrodisiac, produced under a formula handed down from their stellar ancestors, and that Bartolomeu had acted under its influence. Bartolomeu’s assertions are greeted with derision – until the President comes up as a defense witness, confirming all of these assertions and stating that Bartolomeu had unknowingly used a huge overdose of the aphrodisiac and was indeed unable to control himself. Thereupon, Bartolomeu is acquitted and Congress proceeds to impeach President Wheatley – some of its members believing that Wheatley is indeed an extraterrestrial, others considering him as suffering from major delusions and still others regarding him and his wife as grossly immoral – all of these divergent views alike being taken as grounds for impeachment. In the aftermath, the ex-President and his wife drop from view. An industrious journalist traces them to a hut at a fishermen’s village in Patagonia – but they refuse to talk to him. However, in 2011 the world is threatened by an imminent collision with a giant asteroid. Thereupon, the ex-President comes out of seclusion and offers to the League of Nations (still existent in this future) the knowledge of how to construct a powerful Repellor Ray Emitter,which is used in order to push the asteroid harmlessly away. Hailed as a hero and savior, he then runs again for the US Presidency in 2012 and is elected by a landslide – this time under his true name in his ancestral language, President Geotekeezu-Chub’Chub-Pegaree. In his inauguration, he pronounces the full name by its precise correct intonation. However, the public generally calls him “President Geotkie”. His wife – who has a similarly long, unearthly true name – becomes known as “First Lady Medgarie”. Geotkie serves three full terms (the story was written before the enactment of the Twenty-second Amendment), and becomes one of the most successful and highly-popular Presidents in American history. He makes available to the general public much scientific and technological knowledge passed down from his stellar ancestors – but is firm in suppressing and destroying the formula for the infamous aphrodisiac, which he considers too dangerous to unleash upon the world.

How many of President Geotekeezu-Chub’Chub-Pegaree’s real-life counterparts would even have the technical knowledge to build a Repellor Ray Emitter, I’d like to know. Probably the same number as would be willing to publicly admit to something embarrassing rather than let an innocent person go to prison.

canfield decisionAnother book I’ve occasionally seen on shelves but have never read is The Canfield Decision, a novel by Spiro T. Agnew. Mr Agnew will long be remembered as the second Vice President of the United States to resign his office, and the first to do so in disgrace.* Due to its authors notoriety, The Canfield Decision sold well. Few who wrote about it were favorably impressed. Most reviewers focused on the novel’s dreary prose style and poor construction, while the many tactless remarks it contains about the relationship between Israel and American Jews and about the role of American Jews in shaping US public opinion gained a substantial amount of public attention, eliciting reactions ranging from disgust to outrage. I remember a mid-1970s bit on Saturday Night Live‘s fake news segment when a photograph of a fully robed Ku Klux Klansman appeared above the anchorman’s shoulder. The audience grew silent at this grim picture. The anchorman then spoke a sentence beginning “Former Vice President Spiro Agnew,” at which name they roared with laughter.

One of the kindest reviews of The Canfield Decision was written by John Kenneth Galbraith in the New York Times for 6 June 1976.  Galbraith spends the first half of the review documenting the book’s literary failings and the bigoted views it expresses, and noting its author’s status as a convicted felon, a shameless demagogue, and an all-around blot on the national honor of the United States.  But then he goes on to find some good things to say about it:

As the book proceeds, one does have the feeling that Mr. Agnew struggles less and gets better. Canfield, presiding over the Senate, has an excellent contest with the majority leader over clearing the galleries, one which ends with an adolescent getting pitched over the gallery railing. Canfield’s deeply compassionate concern with turning the incident to his advantage is also convincing. So throughout are his adverse comments on the press.

Mr. Agnew is admirable, as well on the details of Vice‐Presidential travel‐ a matter on which, as distinct perhaps from global conspiracy, he speaks out of experience. The procedures and folk‐rites of the Secret Service, air crew, staff advisers and assistants, speech ‐ writers, stenographers, welcoming committees, local politicians and especially the traveling press are described in sometimes loving detail, and he brilliantly establishes a truth that many must have sensed. It is that Vice‐Presidential movements serve no absolutely no‐public purpose of any kind whatever. Nor is there any reason why any paper or network should cover them, surplus funds or the distant chance of an aircrash or an assassination apart. And there is certainly no reason why the rest of us should pay for them. I contemplate a Vietnam‐type deduction from here on. Though Mr. Agnew establishes this important truth, he is not convincingly aware of it himself.

The “Canfield Decision” may not be a great novel. But Mr. Agnew reminds us of how many and diverse are the people who want to promote trouble between the Soviets and ourselves for their own private purposes. This reminder is especially useful right now as memory of the Vietnam debacle fades, and the Cold Warriors venture out again from under the stones… The book is also useful as a compendium of bureaucratic and other styles, although there is the problem of reading it. And no good citizen will urge Mr. Agnew, as he might another writer, to return to his previous way of life. All will want him to keep on trying. ■

*In 1832, John C. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency to accept a seat as US Senator from South Carolina. Agnew resigned as part of a plea agreement to avoid going to prison for bribery and tax evasion.

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