When Hillary Clinton announced (for the second time) her candidacy for the presidency, she joined a lengthy line of predecessors, other women who had heard her call and stepped into public service, sometimes attaining the highest office in the land.
Of course, that's not what happened in our reality. But it was what happened in pop culture, where the US often workshops and tries out ideas that will eventually become reality. The growing rise of gay rights in the country, for instance, neatly tracks with the growing depiction of gay people as fellow American citizens on television, and fiction has a long history of black presidents preceding Barack Obama's election.
Yet, weirdly, female presidents are a somewhat rare commodity in American fiction, only really coming into their own in the last 10 years and mostly doing so on television. And if you look at these characters, you'll see something interesting — they're all actively in conversation with Hillary Clinton, on one level or another.
Television, especially, has been preparing Americans for a second Clinton presidency, sometimes unknowingly.
The stealth candidacy for a Hillary Clinton presidency — in 2005
Any history of TV Hillary Clinton analogues who actually become president must begin with Geena Davis's role in Commander in Chief, a 2005 ABC political drama about the first female president that was very briefly a huge hit. The first five episodes crested 15 million viewers, before production troubles and a change in producers caused the show to leave the air for several months, which halted any momentum it had built up. The series was canceled after one season.
Early in the run, though, when the series looked like TV's next big hit, series creator Rod Lurie and Davis herself were asked, repeatedly, if the show was a shadow campaign for a Hillary Clinton run in 2008. Republican bloggers and talking heads went so far as to suggest that the show was overt propaganda for such a thing, despite the fact that President Mackenzie Allen (Davis) is an independent who only becomes president after the one she plays vice president to dies.
"This is not a You-Go-Hillary show, this is a You-Go-Girl show," Lurie told the Associated Press shortly after the show debuted. "I just want to see women in the process, whether they be Democrats or Republicans or Independents. If there’s any social agenda to the show, it’s to be enthusiastic about the idea of a woman president — and an Independent president. She’s an Independent, which is sort of a big deal."
Mackenzie, then, is best read as part of Hollywood's attempts to come up with a new West Wing in a world where Republicans controlled both the presidency and the Congress. And as with many fictional women, Mackenzie was portrayed as an accidental president, ascending to the throne when a man dies or is removed from office. Her Clinton overlap is actually rather minimal — they're both women, and they both have considerable numbers of political opponents — but just the idea of a woman president was enough.
The fictional Hillary Clintons were on their way.
The Clinton-ish characters
After Clinton lost the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 and settled into a role as Obama's secretary of state, the raw elements of her story — ambitious former first lady who came agonizingly close to the presidency herself before falling just short — proved irresistible to the TV industry, which used them over and over again. And yet these shows tended to paint their heroines as either unlikely political success stories (as with Mackenzie Allen) or as frustrated strivers, stuck in go-nowhere jobs.
Take, for instance, Elizabeth McCord, the character Téa Leoni plays currently on CBS's respectably rated Madam Secretary. (The show has already been renewed for a second season.) As secretary of state, Elizabeth is asked to handle all manner of foreign crises, in the usual, dogged "case of the week" structure of a CBS show that primarily appeals to an older audience. But she's also a former CIA employee who has no real desire to get back into politics — which is exactly why the president (her former boss) asks her to do the job. Elizabeth is clearly meant to resonate with Clinton's well-respected time at the State Department, and she's far from the ambitious figure Clinton is usually painted as.
Similarly, consider Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) on Scandal, super-producer Shonda Rhimes's fantasia on American politics as operatic melodrama. A major theme of recent episodes has been that Mellie, the first lady, longs to be president after her husband leaves the office, despite having no obvious qualifications. Mellie is one of Scandal's best characters, a frustrated political wife beset on all sides by her husband's infidelity and her own demons, but in this instance, she plays uneasily into late-'90s fears that Clinton was simply using her husband's coattails to propel her own political career.
It's also worth looking to two women who manage to actually become president — though we've seen little of their administrations. On Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus's hysterical take on Vice President Selina Meyer, for instance, only gained in depth the closer she got to holding actual power. Her Clinton-ish character is often a buffoon, yes, but one who keys into the central arc of Clinton's 2008 campaign. The closer Selina gets to what she wants, the further away it is, something that paradoxically continues to hold true now that she's president as the fourth season begins.
As far as Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation goes, it's impossible to say if she actually became president in the show's series finale, but it seems likely either she or her husband did. Yet the show's portrayal of Leslie as a small-town can-do optimist, beset on all sides by people who were angry with essentially everything she did, originally resonated deeply with Clinton. (When the show began in 2009, the 2008 campaign was fresher in memory.) But it also came to resonate with the anger that eventually greeted President Obama.
All four of these characters presented different faces of the Clinton Americans think they know. They were — directly and indirectly — feeding into the larger story of the woman who would have been president and ultimately wasn't — but might get a second chance someday.
And speaking of Poehler ...
The actual Hillary Clintons
The frequent comparisons between Leslie and Clinton early in the run of Parks may have had something to do with the fact that Poehler spent the 2008 campaign playing the then-senator on Saturday Night Live. She has been succeeded by Kate McKinnon in the same "role," as the 2016 campaign heats up.
Poehler and McKinnon have subtly different takes on Clinton, but one thing that unites them is a frustration with having to play the political game. Poehler's Clinton, in particular, took on a certain level of increasingly horrified irritation that something she had wanted so very badly wasn't going to be hers.
Both "characters" are the sorts of ambitious, striving, slightly unhinged women that Clinton is often caricatured as. But they also both succeed as among the best impersonations of recent SNL because they get at the heart of this story, the idea of wanting something that stays, nevertheless, just out of reach, and all of the needless bullshit that goes with such a thing.
It's perhaps telling that SNL never quite figured out how to lampoon Obama, but always had a good sense of what to do with Clinton. That may have something to with stereotypes of ambitious women in comedic contexts being more societally acceptable, or it might have something to do with Clinton having more obvious personal tics to satirize.
But watch these two riffs on Clinton sometime and you'll see a constant, boiling frustration lying underneath the surface. "This," they seem to ask, "is what I have to do to be president?"
The best fictional Hillary Clinton of all time
Weirdly, the best TV Clinton was probably President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), who was the final fictional president on the original run of action series 24.
Jones was hired to play the part in 2007 for the show's seventh season, which seemed as if it would air in early 2008 and coincide with Clinton's presidential campaign. Instead, the 2007 writers strike delayed the season to early 2009 — when Obama was about to take office and Jones was forced to answer endless questions about whether her character was meant to be a Clinton analogue.
I say "weirdly" because 24 was roundly read as a politically conservative show. It was often seen as supporting America's use of torture and the Bush Doctrine. (These critiques often missed how the true villains on the show were usually American business interests.) Thus, Allison Taylor became sort of the inverse of Mackenzie Allen. Instead of an attempt to create a fictional Democratic president in a Republican world, Allison is a fictional Republican president for a Democratic world.
Though Allison's party is never identified, she's interventionist in foreign policy in a way that tracks with prior 24 commanders in chief and the real-life George W. Bush. She just feels a little bit more agony about it than many others. Her America is also one constantly beset by terrorist attacks and violent threats of overthrow. At one point, her White House is even invaded by a terrorist militia.
And yet Allison Taylor becomes perhaps the best argument for a female president TV has yet cooked up. She appears to have won her election convincingly, rather than ascending to the office via means other than the voters (as with every other fictional president on this list, save maybe Leslie Knope). She's politically savvy and doesn't appear to be any worse at navigating the treacherous waters of foreign policy in the 24 universe than any of her predecessors.
When you consider that her predecessors included an actual traitor, you could even make the argument that Allison is the best 24 president of them all. Only David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the 24 universe's first black president, comes close.
Jones won an Emmy for the role, even though 24 itself had seen better days, and it's easy to see why. Her take on the role was that of a woman beset on all sides by angry tempests but facing them down with steely resolve and an iron will. She was, in other words, a somewhat perfect fantasy for Hollywood in the early days of the Obama administration, when it became clear he would not be able to enact his agenda by sheer force of will.
Allison Taylor is only accidentally a Hillary Clinton analogue, but she ends up being the best by sheer virtue of how much she gets done. She was a fictional do-over, a chance to toss someone Clinton-esque into the role of president and see what happened. And in her own way, she may have paved the way for any Clinton presidency that results better than any other fictional figure.