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Why are fictional presidents so young?

Onscreen presidents tend to be youthful and dashing. Real presidents, less so.

Actor Justin Kirk, as presidential candidate Jeryd Mencken, wears a black suit and attends a church service, with people seated in pews shown behind him.
Justin Kirk as Jeryd Mencken on Succession.
Warner Bros.

Welcome to Noticed, Vox’s cultural trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: They’re charming, fit, and usually good-looking, with Arlington-cemetery smiles and oilfield hair. There’s a decent chance they’ll have served in a familiar conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan. They can be found on either side of the political divide. A few of them are even women. They represent a new kind of politics, but you can’t vote for them because they only exist on our screens. They’re fictional presidents, and they’re young. So unbelievably young.

Where it is: Across our screens, from The Night Agent to Homeland, but most recently, the final few episodes of Succession. The Roy siblings worked out their familial kinks against the backdrop of an election, contested by new-broom Democrat Daniel Jiménez and flashy Republican Jeryd Mencken. Jiménez and Mencken were played by actors Elliot Villar, 43, and Justin Kirk, 54. Looking further back, shows like Scandal, House of Cards and multiple seasons of 24 have all cast actors younger than 50 to play presidents or candidates. Fifty might well seem on the older side to you — the minimum age for a presidential candidate is a mere 35 — but in reality, the last time an election was contested by two people younger than half a century was 1960. In 2020, the combined age of both candidates was 151.

Why you’re seeing it everywhere: One of the best lines from Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic Nixon speaks to this phenomenon. In the depths of affliction, Richard Nixon — played by Anthony Hopkins with a grin so tight-lipped his mouth could be a fistula — addresses a portrait of JFK hanging in the White House. “When they look at you, they see what they want to be,” he says, staring up at the odd, pensive painting. “When they look at me, they see what they are.”

As a summary of the difference between political rivals it works pretty well. Kennedy, an avatar of glamour and optimism, a youthful leader for a country that still believed its best years lay ahead. Nixon, a creature of sweat and resentment, the right man to lead a country that lost its way somewhere between the Bay of Pigs and Hanoi.

The line also works pretty well as a summary of media aesthetics. For the most part, the entertainment industry doesn’t permit physical manifestations of the spiritual ugliness embodied by characters like Nixon (unless a real person is being dramatized, in which case handsome people will go to great lengths to give themselves a rough edge and an Oscar). Taking the improbably spelled Jeryd Mencken as an example, Kirk is fine-boned with a seductively fiendish energy, kind of like watching Gary Sinise through a bedeviling TikTok filter. He’s an election-stealing swine, but he looks the part. You can see why people would vote for him in droves.

Of course, TV and film’s seldom-paid debt to reality is nothing new. Whether it’s what happens when a gas tank explodes or the attractiveness of patrons at a Philadelphia dive bar like Paddy’s Pub, the gap between world and screen is plenty wide. In recent years, the US has become a gerontocracy, with the last two presidential elections contested exclusively by candidates far older than normal retirement, and an upper house in which the average age of members is 65. Only 10 percent of current senators are younger than 50. With Biden versus Trump in 2024 already looking like a grimly predictable bit of plotting, the age of its presidents might just represent the medium’s most absurdly unrealistic casting.

On screen we want our romantic leads flawless, our sitcom families lower middle-class but quirky, and our presidents capable of single-handedly killing terrorists and jumping out of crashing jumbo jets. Because running a country is hard and requires energy and patience — the kind that must be tough to come by when you’re painfully aware of the time you have left slipping away. More seriously, as Kennedy realized better than most, the president is an emblem as well as a politician. With the right leadership, maybe we could actually be what we want to be instead of settling for what we are.

Cinema and TV have no shame about pandering to us. But could their political preferences be more than just an aesthetic fantasy? Sure, it might be a little extreme to imagine the entire presidential line of succession being wiped out in a bombing so that Kiefer Sutherland can be sworn in on Designated Survivor. But while all the torture and extrajudicial executions from his 24 days would certainly represent a lot of baggage, at least he didn’t oversee Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings.

One of storytelling’s most common functions is wish fulfillment, but sometimes it isn’t just the audience’s wishes that are being fulfilled. One of the frequent criticisms leveled at The West Wing, still perhaps the best-known and best-loved drama about a fictional presidency, was that it represented creator Aaron Sorkin’s personal fantasy of a principled, erudite politics, peopled by fast-talking characters who could say “I serve at the pleasure of the president” without exploding into balls of Miltonic rage. But while President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen, 59 when the first season aired) is a Democrat’s dream, it is arguably the storyline about his successor that established the pattern.

In the later seasons after Sorkin’s departure, Bartlet’s presumed heir, Matt Santos, is the archetypal fantasy candidate. A former Marine, a family man, a Democrat from Texas. As played by a 49-year-old Jimmy Smits, he was also 6-foot-3 with a face chiseled from Mount Rushmore granite. His opponent, Arnold Vinick, was also a fantasy, but of a different sort: an avuncular Goldwater Republican played by the ever-affable Alan Alda. But he was spindly and silver-haired; unmistakably a politician of the past. (The actor was 68 at the time.) The writers gave themselves two candidates to root for, but it was clear that they only ever loved one of them.

A blond man in a suit and tie under a navy coat.
Joel Kinnaman as Will Conway on House of Cards.
Netflix

And to prove the point that such make-believe can persist on either side of the aisle, House of Cards repeated the Santos playbook a decade later. Joel Kinnaman’s 37-year-old ubermensch Republican, Will Conway, took on the sleazy Underwoods just before Kevin Spacey’s disgraced exit from the show. Kinnaman spent two seasons projecting dignity while trying not to burst out of his tailoring. A presidential hopeful who could (and did) pass as a superhero. We should be so lucky.

Cormac McCarthy, who died in June, took the title of his novel No Country for Old Men from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats. In the poem, the elderly narrator laments that his homeland is now full of young people embracing, watching birds, and listening to sensual music. He doesn’t fit in, and decides to sail off in search of higher things. His destination is the city of Byzantium, where he hopes to transcend bodily frailty (possibly by asking some holy sages to eat his heart) and devote himself to “monuments of unageing intellect.”

This, of course, is the reason we’re often given for why we have to let a bunch of geriatrics make all the decisions. They have put behind them childish things, like the aforementioned music and embracing. They have the wisdom, the farsightedness, the unageing intellect needed to get the job done. Except that our lived experience shows that they don’t. What most of them really have are the barely submerged prejudices of their youth and an imperfect understanding of how Twitter works. We deserve better, and for once the unforgiving aesthetics of film and television are pointing us to a truth we need to embrace.

After all, as Yeats’s poem goes on to remind us:

“An aged man is but a paltry thing / A tattered (sport) coat upon a stick ...”

Philip Walford lives in California and writes about technology and culture. You can find him on Twitter.

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