DADS–what a bunch of goofballs, at least in contemporary narratives. If a dad isn’t a doofus, then he’s terrible with that terribleness compounded because he plays against the audience’s built-in expectations of dads portrayed as kind, well-meaning people who don’t quite understand the creatures they spawned but support them all the same.
Those goofy dads exist within the construct that a father’s place is outside the home. Even in current works that exist in this reality where both parents likely have jobs outside the home, fictional dads still aren’t portrayed as domestically literate. A father can do the chores he’s assigned around the house, hang out with his family, and advise his spouse and children on the world outside the home, but when it comes to strictly home matters (household management, in-fighting among siblings, guiding the emotional well-being of the family) he realizes himself a fish out of water. That’s the general structure of Dad DNA and even when a father works against the archetype or when the gender roles are reversed, the audience knows to recognize that it’s not true to form.
Fictional dads reached this point in two ways. First, many narratives reiterate the outmoded view of a father’s role as the gatekeeper between a family’s public and private existence. Stories, then, connect to this second point: the very title of dad narrows that life to the home, and stories thrive in the space between a person’s private butt-scratching in the kitchen and power-suiting through the professional world. The mid-90s nostalgia masterpiece (nostalgiapiece?) The American President provides a great example of a goofball dad trying to make good in both his home life and his public life, with that public life being out on the world stage.
We can agree that The American President remains the stickiest and dampest of Aaron Sorkin’s liberal wet dreams–yes, stickier still than seven seasons of The West Wing, if only for the President’s intense laser focus that wakes us, panting, to the sight of Michael Douglas looking you right in the eyes as he stands up for Annette Bening…and you. After all these years, President still works so well because it’s a great story told with exacting precision: Michael Douglas, of the thick silk voice and so-ready smile, opens the movie with a walk-and-talk that announces he is the American President and he is very good at this. A story unfolds in which this American President stumbles in his quest to be a leader, a father, and a man, watching all three slip away before he wins them all back in one of those speeches only Dixie Carter and Sorkin men have the shoulder pads and ego to deliver.
Here, we’re covering the dad side of President Andrew Shepherd. Few consider Andrew Shepherd As Father since he’s really good at it in the three full scenes he and his daughter, 12-year-old Lucy, share in the movie. If that seems scarce, you’re not alone in thinking that. “What about Lucy Shepherd?” Concerned Citizen #4’s voiceover squeals during a montage of the widower president’s debauched foray into a monogamous relationship. “Is anyone concerned about this little girl?” During the montage, there’s a quick fourth glimpse of Lucy, accusations of neglect rendered irrelevant as Shepherd and his girlfriend listen to her perform on the trombone. We learn in these few short scenes between the president and Lucy that they’re pals, but not so chummy that they won’t call each other out on their respective shit: the president won’t let her avoid participating in class, and Lucy’s not going to let her dad look like a dork while dating fiercely competent lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade.
The trick to developing a more realistic, certainly a slightly more flawed view of Andrew Shepherd: PresiDad, lies in re-examining Aaron Sorkin’s talent at framing narratives. Critics can lob tried telling too many stories at some artists’ work, but not at Sorkin: with Sorkin, you’ll only get the story he wants to tell. His talent lies in cutting the canvas to the narrowest and most specific dimensions possible, and everything outside that canvas doesn’t exist in the world of that episode, that season, that movie. We see this in The West Wing’s season two finale: “Two Cathedrals” frames the re-election question within a retrospective of President Bartlett’s secretary, Mrs. Landingham, who we learn has been a figure of conscience for him since he was a teenager. It’s not necessary that the viewer have seen any other episode because “Two Cathedrals” presents Mrs. Landingham as Bartlett first knew her and as only Bartlett knew her, and that’s who helps him settle his dilemma.
President narrows the scope of its story even further, with the movie’s action set entirely during the ten weeks leading up to Shepherd’s final State of the Union. Like in “Two Cathedrals,” the question of re-election looms almost a year away. Sorkin very carefully limits the scope to only ten weeks: ten weeks of a four-year term, of Lucy’s 12 years of age, of Shepherd’s relationship with his deceased wife, his years with Martin Sheen’s A.J. as his best friend pushing him to do more and get into politics–it’s only ten weeks of his entire life. During these ten weeks, he’s the leader of one of the largest countries on earth, a great father to his daughter who adores him, and a person who comes under attack for falling in love before he fights for it as best he can.
That’s at the heart of Shepherd as Dad: the story presents us with ten weeks where an adolescent doesn’t disobey or argue with her only surviving parent. Three years prior to the events of the movie, Lucy was nine years old and dragged to a large marker on the world stage labeled First Daughter of the United States. She stands just barely out of her father’s spotlight and while he shapes the most influential country in the world, her part in this double act is be excellent or be silent.
It’s not clear at what point in the presidential election timeline Shepherd’s wife died, but it was close enough to election day that Rumsen’s cronies lament they couldn’t engage in negative ads and character attacks in that election. That might put her death no more than a year before election day, adjusting for the inflation of those early 90s news cycles that ran longer without the Internet to fuel them. Shepherd’s wife had to have still been alive while deciding with him whether to put their family through the stress of a presidential election–even so, that meant that when she died, Shepherd, his team, and then-nine-year-old Lucy decided to go ahead with the campaign and the presidency. Fast-forward to the events of President: it’s three years later, we never see Lucy with anyone but her father (and briefly, Sydney) for company and, as far as her dad knows, her biggest problem is that she doesn’t participate in social studies as much as her teacher would like.
As far as her dad knows. The quick heart-to-heart that introduces us to Lucy early in the movie only introduces us to Lucy as a device to make Shepherd look good. He interrupts her music practice to share her teacher’s concern about class participation. What’s important, though, is that Lucy’s just arrived from school and she’s alone until Shepherd arrives. He arrives in her room to check up on her, and she’s alone; when he gets up to leave, no one arrives to take his place–she’s still alone. There are no signs that Lucy exists as her own person when Shepherd leaves a room, except when she exists as an animatronic force that (as later in the movie) he summons to “entertain [Sydney] until he gets here.” Lucy isn’t practicing the trombone with, say, a Secret Service agent or a First Grandma or someone to look out for her when Shepherd isn’t around. This isn’t a case of Lucy being 12 and too old for a babysitter; it’s more that her isolation exists to glorify Shepherd as an excellent single parent who needs no help raising her. Shepherd can leave the room, the White House, the country, and he always will return to Lucy happy to see him. She listens thoughtfully to his advice on the excitement of learning about one’s civic duties before joking around with him because Shepherd has done his job and created a well-oiled father-daughter relationship that runs smoothly without getting too serious.
Of the four scenes Shepherd actually shares the screen with his daughter, three of them have dialogue and only one gets to the heart of their relationship and their shared past before the White House. In that scene, Lucy helps him get ready for his first date with Sydney. As she fixes his bow tie, he asks, “Where did you learn how to do this?” “Social studies,” she jokes, before she admits that her mother taught her. He chooses that moment to ask if it’s okay that he’s having dinner with a woman and, for the sake of actually having a movie, Lucy assures him it’s fine and she proves it with another joke. No one makes time in that scene to discuss it further or to reminisce about the lingering specter of Lucy’s mother before making room for the addition of Dad’s Girlfriend to their family.
The issue with Shepherd’s parenting in President isn’t necessarily that he’s remiss or negligent. Rather, the specificity of the story’s dimensions and its romantic focus require that his family not be questioned. President asks “how would a contemporary American president date?” and it would take a much longer and more involved movie to also confront a delinquent child, a frustrated parent, and a potential partner willing to get involved. All three would also have to handle the ensuing public inquiries and evidence of the president’s home life falling apart. The story Sorkin wanted to tell was a lighthearted comedy about dating in the White House, with a quick stumble into questioning a leader’s personal character and how much of their private life should inform that. He creates a two-hour movie featuring a handsome, understanding dad and his funny, understanding daughter and how they roped a brilliant, understanding lobbyist into their family, despite Richard Dreyfuss’s scowling.
If anything, it’s the story’s narrow scope and precise engineering that does Shepherd a disservice because his and Lucy’s relationship might take on a precious sheen with the long view of their lives the movie wouldn’t provide. Maybe when Lucy turns 18, she attends a small liberal arts college to study music, international affairs, improv comedy, and economics. There, she participates in a performance art version of The Crucible that requires living the part of Village Girl #4 and dancing naked in the woods to summon the devil. It’s all part of the performance’s message to demonstrate the vestiges of McCarthy Era morality still prevalent in 21st century America. This sets off Lucy’s rebellious firestorm that doesn’t give her father and stepmother peace for weeks, maybe even months. It’s important then that Andrew Shepherd and Sydney Ellen Wade look back on meatloaf night and those ten weeks when they were younger and their relationship was exciting and terrifying. Andy will sigh wistfully, remembering when he thought Lucy might never speak up in social studies. They’ll smile at each other and, when Oxford (as in Englandisreallyfarawayfromhere) suddenly finds a spot for Lucy Shepherd for the upcoming year, they’ll remember those ten precious weeks with great fondness.
The American President (Netflix | Amazon Instant Video)
USA’s Political Animals (Netflix | Amazon Instant Video) (For the good twin/bad twin vision of teenagers who grew up in the White House and the fresh hell they raise afterwards. Sigourney Weaver as Hillary! Ellen Burstyn as First Grandma!)
Michelle Vider lives in Philadelphia. She has a master's degree in English, but she's feeling much better, thank you. She tweets here.