Patty Duke Is My President


There's been a lot of hullabaloo surrounding Commander in Chief, the unintentional dramedy and imperial-presidency fantasy that stars Geena Davis as the nation's first female president (not counting Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and that long string of benchwarmers with Shirley Partridge-style sideburns before the Civil War).

For all the chatter about Commander in Chief, you'd think it was the first time TV portrayed the Ovum Office. While researching (all right, "researching") a story, I stumbled across this Internet Movie Database entry about a one-season wonder from 1985–midway through the Ronnie Raygun years, when we were all snorting coke that we bought from contras through rolled-up savings & loan certificates during parties celebrating the death of the poor and winnable nuclear war in Europe (really, could Europe be worse off?):

Plot Summary for "Hail to the Chief" (1985)

Julia Mansfield is the first woman to be elected President of the United States. In addition to dealing with the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, spies in the cabinet, and personal attacks by a conservative religious leader, she also has to handle such personal problems as an impotent husband and a sex scandal involving her son.

An impotent First Husband? A White House sex scandal? Comic Russkies? How did we ever Just Say No to this in the '80s? Yet I've got to admit that this one passed under my radar every bit as much as the spectacular 1981 Saturday Night Live flameout of funnyman-cum-suicide Charles Rocket and the entire runs of Golden Girls, Who's The Boss?, and the last 20 years of Happy Days (when the gang ran a dude ranch on the 3rd moon of Jupiter, Joanie and Chachi toured the heavens as an intergalactic version of Ike and Tina Turner, and Ralph Malph was named God-Emperor of Dune).

But the plots for HTC practically write themselves: The French prime minister arrives for a state dinner…and is an exact double for President Mansfield…through a strange mix-up they are mistaken for each other…hilarity ensues….

And check out this cast–more half-stars than there are in half-heaven: Patty Duke as the prez; Ted "Donald from That Girl!" Bessell; Dick "The Ultimate Stage Death" Shawn as Premier Dmitri Zolotov; Herschel "Voice of Charlie the Starkist Tuna" Bernardi as Helmut Luger; Murray "The mayor in Jaws" Hamilton; and the inestimable John "Dean Wormer" Vernon as Gen. Hannibal Stryker (you can hear his Curtis LeMay-like lines in your head right now, can't you?). Throw in a trollishly adolescent Quinn "The Goodbye Girl" Cummings as an Amy Carter manque and it's simply a national embarrassment that this show got its ass kicked in the ratings by Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Simon & Simon, Hardcastle & McCormick, and just about every other show on the air back then.

But then again, Carter Country didn't last too long, either, did it?

Why do dramas about the White House seem to fare better than sitcoms (That's My Bush! anyone? How about the DVD of the half-season of DAG?)? Perhaps it's because dramas such as The West Wing and Commander in Chief hold open the fantasy that the president of the United States is not in fact a real-life sitcom character.

Back in 1997, I mused over why Bill Clinton ushered in an age of presidential films (all of them crap!). And back in 2000, Reason's Chuck Freund wrote a requiem for the president as commander in chief. After 9/11, that changed of course, but it seems to be slipping back toward something less martial yet again. Read about the "new presidential identity" here and picture Patty Duke yukking it up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.