Sunday Story Break — After the White House

JUNE 12TH, 2016 — POST 160

This is the fifteenth instalment in a series in which I try to find the movie from a piece of news, pop culture, or trope. You can read last week’s, about Peter Thiel’s funding of the lawsuit that is sinking Gawker, here.

Hillary Clinton this week became the presumptive nominee for the Democrat candidate. Donald Trump is the last man standing for the Republicans. Despite Clinton finally waking up to the power of social media, and leading Trump in the (albeit often unreliable) polls, the general election is still too close and too far off to call. This week Clinton received notable endorsements from once-presumed-rival Elizabeth Warren as well as from President Obama himself.

In a move that could be read as an extended, implied endorsement, Obama appears on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, partaking in some fan-favourite segments like ’Slow Jam the News’ and ‘Thank You Notes’. During the interview with Fallon, Obama spoke about his plans to stay in DC after leaving the White House in January of next year. Outside of this, and taking his final Air Force One flight to “someplace warm”, what exactly Obama will do afterwards remains largely an unanswered question.

The lives of heads of states are reliable fodder for fictional adaptation. Whether utterly fictitious as in House of Cards or played for their surreal comedy like recent feature Elvis & Nixon, we are more than accustomed to seeing presidents depicted on-screen. For Obama, acknowledged to be one of the more consequential presidents of the United States, his time in office surely will provide fictionists with a lot to work with. I’ll bet their are fingers hammering keyboards right now touching up screenplays and teleplays that centre on one decision or another as the source of drama (or comedy).

However, the men (and soon women?) that have graced the Oval Office seem to elevate to almost mythic spectres once their terms are up. There is an acknowledgement that, for the most part, they have made their contribution to the world and ought to now spend their days in secluded luxury painting. But for Obama, a man that so clearly raised America’s “cool” after George W. Bush and whose charisma seems unprecedented in a head of state, what he does next might be the more interesting story.

It’s here that finding a story requires a departure from reality. We frankly have no idea what Obama will do next and to guess is just silly. This allows the question to be asked: what could an ex-president do that would be dramatically engaging? I’d always thought George W. Bush would have made a legitimately good stand-up but that’s not something a person who’s reached that position could go on doing. There is also something attractive about the “coming out of retirement” trope that could serve both a dramatic or comedic story premise for a fictionalised ex-president. Furthermore, there’s a very real sense in which an ex-president is freer, able to make decisions without the requisite deferring to the decision-making capacity of a Congress. And then there’s the question of their legacy: what if an ex-president isn’t satisfied to leave the term served to stand as their sole historic legacy? What if they wanted more?

One of the hardest things to work through in this sort of story is bringing down the status of the protagonist. If an ex-president is our main character, how can their life be so full of conflict to sustain a movie? Launch Codes would begin in one of countless dry speaking engagements. Officials constantly usher the ex-president around, like some mummified national treasure, to speak to rooms of tuxedoed bald men at a benefit here, a library opening there. With his kids on their own professional paths, the ex-pres starts to feel the familiar itch that had him begin his political career. After sharing the stage with prominent Silicon Valley billionaire, planning manned missions off Earth, the ex-pres sees the path to the greatest legacy: from head of state to head of planet as one of the first Martian colonists.

Okay, this is phenomenally silly. But for me it draws out the notion of a life lived for others, a life lived in service to be concluded by earned selfishness. I don’t know if this Martian ex-pres story is the best way to draw out this tension, but, hey, this was my first crack at it.

Let me know if you’ve got any better ideas.

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