An Overview of Oval Office Occupants in Fiction

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Barack Obama

With the Presidents’ Day holiday in the United States coming up tomorrow, February 20, I thought I’d focus on mentions of and appearances by real-life presidents in novels I’ve read. Some of those commanders-in-chief were good leaders, others were bad leaders; some of their fiction cameos show them when they’re president, others show them before entering the White House. I’ll go chronologically backward in time.

Barack Obama is referenced in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah — specifically, the reaction to his 2008 presidential campaign and election from protagonist Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who emigrated to the U.S.

Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom name-checks President George W. Bush when it focuses on character Joey Berglund’s response to the not-warranted U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent disastrous war.

Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone includes a cameo from 1976 presidential candidate (and of course eventual winner) Jimmy Carter.

Herman Wouk hits the White Houseย trifecta in War and Remembrance — which includes multiple scenes with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a brief cameo near book’s end by FDR successor Harry Truman, and an appearance by future president Dwight Eisenhower in his WWII commander days. FDR also gets quite a few pages in Wouk’s War and Remembrance prequel The Winds of War when fictional character Victor “Pug” Henry becomes a confidant to the Oval Office occupant.

A pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt, when New York City’s police commissioner, is a major supporting character in Caleb Carr’s crime novel The Alienist.

President Ulysses Grant appears briefly in Darryl Brock’s time-travel novel If I Never Get Back when players on baseball’s 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings squad (including teammate-from-the-future Sam Fowler) meet the former Civil War general at the White House.

Abraham Lincoln has been a character in many novels; unfortunately, none I’ve read. But I’ve been moved by two Walt Whitman poems focusing on the 16th president: “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

George Washington appears in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series during his time as Revolutionary War general — several years prior to being elected America’s first president.ย 

Any novels fitting this theme you’d like to mention? I realize I’ve just skimmed the surface; I can think of several novels featuring U.S. presidents I didn’t include in my post because I haven’t read those books (yet). I have a feeling you’ll name some of them, and others. ๐Ÿ™‚

If you want, you could also mention novels with fictional American presidents/presidential candidates. Among the books that come to mind that I’ve read are It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, The President’s Plane Is Missing by Robert Serling (brother of Twilight Zone creator Rod), and Stephen King’s aforementioned The Dead Zone.ย 

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — featuring a weird football/anti-football theme — is here.

92 thoughts on “An Overview of Oval Office Occupants in Fiction

  1. What a wonderful column Dave.
    I wish I could find a comparable fictional President like President Jimmy Carter.
    It is our tremendous benefit that President Carter is still amongst us so we can observe with utter disgust what America has become with folks like M.T.G .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I find this article most interesting.
    I like history a lot and the insertion of reality into fiction is piquing.
    Okay, what about “Failsafe” by by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler?

    (What will Dave come up with next?)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hello Dave, this post is a good idea for President’s Day. I didn’t know the USA had a holiday like that. In addition to Dead Zone, King also wrote 11/22/63 which is about a time traveler going back to try to prevent the assassination of JFK. Roald Dahl took the mick out of a fictional USA president in his book, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Here are two relevant quotes:
    โ€œIโ€™m afraid the camera got smashed against the side of the Space Hotel, Mr. President,โ€ Shuckworth replied. The President said a very rude word into the microphone and ten million children across the nation began repeating it gleefully and got smacked by their parents.โ€
    ***
    โ€œ. . . ‘let’s learn and note
    The art of politics.
    Let’s teach you how to miss the boat
    And how to drop some bricks,
    And how to win the people’s vote
    And lots of other tricks.
    Let’s learn to make a speech a day
    Upon the T.V. screen,
    In which you never never say
    Exactly what you mean.โ€

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Real headscratcher theme, Dave. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien re: the Vietnam war so Johnson was mentioned, of course. And God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Vonnegut, which is not so much about any president or even mentions a president, but the name Rosewater was, supposedly, a combination of Franklin Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater. Red Alert by Peter George, which the film Dr. Strangelove was based on, with Merkin Muffley being the president in the film. George’s Red Alert is not as funny. Susi
    Link to a review about George’s book: https://youtu.be/HpzWi-ylyGU

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susi! Several great examples! I hadn’t realized Rosewater might be a combination of Roosevelt and Goldwater! Strange bedfellows. ๐Ÿ™‚ And while I don’t remember encountering LBJ in fiction, I did read the first two books of Robert Caro’s amazing multi-volume biography of him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Speaking of strange bedfellows and headscratchers, I always liked Lady Bird Johnson, but she and LBJ seemed so opposite; whereas the other presidents and their wives seem so compatible, eg Maimie and Dwight , Jackie and John, Michele and Barack. It was Lady Bird’s love of nature esp wildflowers that was so admirable. There is a book by Curtis Sittenfeld which is said to be based on Laura Bush and/or American Wife that I, at one point, wanted to read, but I hate politics so I passed. Thanks for the post, Dave, although I had to pick my brain to remember any. Susi

        Liked by 2 people

  5. If you’re looking for a novel read that involves Lincoln, “Courting Mr. Lincoln” was pretty good. Definitely shines some new lights on a very legendary figure. Also in line with this topic, and a read that has always stuck with me is “American Princess” – a novel told from Alice Roosevelt’s POV but Teddy looms large throughout the book, and we do get some cameo spots from FDR and Eleanor as well. Finally, “America’s First Daughter” is another excellent book – told from the POV of Patsy Jefferson, it’s a very in depth look at Thomas Jefferson and well worth the read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B., for those three excellent recommendations! Alice Roosevelt is a fascinating figure — such a feisty, independent, unconventional person. She also appears briefly as a girl in Caleb Carr’s 1890s-set “The Alienist.”

      Liked by 2 people

  6. This one’s a head scratcher for sure, Dave! Other than a couple mentioned here already, the only one that comes to mind is “Follow the River” by James Alexander Thom, namely the young George Washington during the French and Indian War. Much less significant than Gabaldon’s interactions with him which were a pleasant surprise!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This is a great post, Dave, and as usual, I enjoyed reading the comments.

    Since you mentioned his brother Robert, I’ll mention Seven Days in May. The book was written by by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, but the screenplay for the movie was written by Rod Serling. It’s one of my favorite movies but perhaps has become a bit more eerie lately.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Very interesting post as always Dave. Getting the chance to read it properly now. There’s Dreams of Sally Hennings which has Thomas Jefferson in it but as more than a cameo. I can’ remember if he was a cameo in Anya Seton’s book My Theodosia. it is so long since I read that. There’s also Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I don’t think I need say which president has a cameo there…..

    Liked by 2 people

  9. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, was made into a movie, and I must say, having only a few minutes of the latter under my belt, that this is a very different Lincoln from the historical one in many ways, but recognizable indeed is his speed and proficiency with an axe, though here he is not so much The Rail Splitter as a parter of heads as extended from the necks of the demonic undead.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Howzabout a famous president who wrote a murder mystery? No, not Bill Clinton, nor aspirant Hillary, who each co-authored thrillers.

    Not fiction, but an account by a participant– the lawyer for the defense: In 1846, in the pages of the Quincy Whig newspaper, Abraham Lincoln wrote “The Trailorville Murder Mystery”, some details of which remained somewhat a mystery even after trial. It was published again in book form, though most likely along with other items, given its length.

    The article:

    https://wdl.mcdaniel.edu/node/39

    An aside: Ironic, in most movies, the president, be he Lincoln or FDR or etc., though large in real life, has but a small part, which is usually played by a journeyman character actor. Somehow, despite this fact, I recall that Joseph Henabery played Lincoln in “Birth of a Nation”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Wow — did not know about Lincoln’s murder mystery “book.” He certainly was a superb speechwriter, among his other talents.

      Yes, ironic that larger-than-life people such as Lincoln and FDR often have small parts when they appear in movies (or novels). I guess any journeyman actor playing Lincoln must at least be tall and thin, and wear a stovepipe hat well.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Perfect topic for Presidents’ Day, Dave. Sad to say, I haven’t read any of the novels you’ve cited. The only novel I recall reading about an American president is the one Audrey mentioned: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. As she mentions, it’s a weird kind of novel about the death and afterlife of President Lincoln’s son, Willie. The grieving President is portrayed in a very heartwarming way.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. You have the best ideas for posts, Dave. I have read several books about many presidents but they are in the non-fiction category – biographies and autobiographies. When I read these books I realized that sometimes reality can be just as interesting as a novel. I was reminded by the immensity of responsibility upon those who seek public office. The book that came to mind as I read your post and comments was: Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime is a book by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 United States presidential election.

    Just this morning, I read that Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has entered hospice. Bruce Y. Leeโ€™s article in Forbes stated that he โ€œhas done so much since he left the White House in 1981 that you almost assumed and hoped that heโ€™d be around forever. Heโ€™s already lived longer after his Presidency, 42 years, than any other former Commander-in Chief. But Saturdayโ€™s announcement about the 98-year-old Carter gave everyone a cold dose of harsh reality.โ€

    He is now with his family, his work complete.

    I am reminded by May Angelouโ€™s poem about Nelson Mandela upon his passing:

    โ€œHis day is done.
    Is done.
    The news came on the wings of a wind, reluctant to carry its burden.
    Nelson Mandelaโ€™s day is done.
    The news, expected and still unwelcome, reached us in the United States, and suddenly our world became somber.
    Our skies were leadenedโ€ฆ.โ€

    May we live every day with joy and expectation – with a book in hand. And for an exciting time of conversation stop by Daveโ€™s place on Sunday mornings

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Yes, there are MANY nonfiction books about presidents. I’ve read biographies of Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and Obama (might be missing one or two). So true that some lives, and some nonfiction, can be as interesting as novels.

      I read the news about Jimmy Carter yesterday. A real shame, but what a run. Certainly an amazing ex-president, doing good things for humanity rather than just cashing in.

      And those are very moving words by Maya Angelou about Nelson Mandela — one of the best and most inspirational leaders in the history of this planet.

      Liked by 1 person

    • HI Rebecca, whenever I read quotes by Mr Mandela, I am grateful he didn’t live to see the horrific corruption and mismanagement that has blighted our current SA and led effectively to its collapse. We are getting 8 hours of power outages a day currently and there is no plan for remediation.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. You know, Dave, I read The Alienist and enjoyed it, but I don’t remember Roosevelt. The only other book I have read that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Lincoln in the Bardo, which was kind of weird, but treated Lincoln in a touching way.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Audrey! Theodore Roosevelt was more a supporting character than a main character in “The Alienist,” but he did help the main characters in their quest to find that gruesome serial killer.

      I’ve definitely heard of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” and I’m glad to hear that was Lincoln was treated in a good way in that novel.

      Liked by 3 people

  14. Your post, Dave, and especially the novel AMERICANAH, which I had liked very much, made me go and look for it so that I have not on my lap. Despite the fact that I don’t remember the hint to president Obama, I remember quite well the many facets the lives of really or quite black people living in the USA had/ have. Many thanks:)

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Off the top of my head:
    I remember enjoying H. Paul Jeffers’ novel(la?) “The Adventure of the Stalwart Companions” in which pre-Watson Sherlock Holmes, traveling in the States as an actor named Escott, allies with then-NYC Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt to solve a murder with political overtones. Unsuccessful presidential candidate Samuel Tilden makes a cameo.
    Abraham Lincoln makes an appearance in the pre-story to Clive Cussler’s “Sahara.” He’s kidnapped by Southern sympathizers and spirited across the Atlantic on a Rebel ironclad that disappears. Cussler hero Dirk Pitt and pals find Lincoln’s corpse in the ironclad in the middle of the Sahara 150 or so years later (the guy who missed the last act at Ford’s Theater was a stand-in hired by the Union government anxious to conceal Lincoln’s disappearance.
    And among the flood of hacks trying to imitate Tom Clancy in the 1990s with their ham-handed techno-yawners, you could usually find a fictional expy of Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, generally presented as a moron, a traitor, or both.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Don! Very interesting mentions and summaries by you! Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are definitely the kind of larger-than-life notables who were catnip for some novelists putting them in all kinds of situations — some outrageous, as you describe.

      Liked by 1 person

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