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TV's presidential portrayals go from salute to 'Hail to the Creep'

From 'West Wing' to wingnut, the evolution of POTUS as a TV character

It all used to be so simple — and patriotic. If the president of the United States were to appear as a character on a television series, and it was a rarity, he was generally upright, forthright and just, well, right.

"Even when he was a hack, the president was seen as above the fray," says Ian Randal Strock, author of "The Presidential Book of Lists."

But these days, if a TV president calls you into the Oval Office, it might be wise to use the buddy system. So how on earth did we go from saints and ciphers to the Machiavellian plotters and killers we see on "House of Cards," "Revolution" and "24"?

Watergate to "Saturday Night Live"

When President Nixon left office in disgrace in 1974, the game was on. Presidential scandals were far from unknown in Washington, but Watergate brought the bar to a new low. Just a year later, NBC premiered "Saturday Night Live" with Chevy Chase stumbling his way into big laughs as President Gerald Ford — and the show has continued pol-poking ever since.

Still, TV presidents weren't yet considered bad seeds. "It was all good-natured" on "SNL," says Strock. "Attacking the president as a villain didn't start until much later."

Bill Clinton and "The West Wing"

After 12 years of Republicans in the White House, Bill Clinton took office in 1993; six years later, Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" was born. "Wing's" Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) had lofty ideals, a complex human being prone to lecturing.

"House of Cards" show runner Beau Willimon recognizes that some see his show as the anti-"West Wing" but suggests that Bartlet and his own protagonist, Frank Underwood, are not dissimilar. "People try to draw the dialectic between 'West Wing' and 'House of Cards,' that one is a noble fantasy and one is the darkness behind the curtain," he says. "Bartlet is trying to better his country based on his beliefs; Frank is trying to gain power for his own ends, but in a way he also believes that by being president he is doing the best for the country."

Knowing what's best for everyone is a thread many bad (and good) presidents hang on, says "24" executive producer Evan Katz, whose show has cycled through several dubious, flawed presidents since its 2001 premiere. "Every malevolent act is always couched in the country's best interest," he says.

Post-millennial POTUS and "House of Cards"

After the controversial 2000 election that required a Supreme Court decision to finalize, Americans were driven into red and blue corners — disillusioned, bitter and itching for a fight. That paved the way for the self-serving, murderous president of "House of Cards," a man who goes from House majority whip to vice president to president in two seasons. All he has to do is push someone in front of a train and stage a suicide. Meanwhile, in the post-apocalypse of "Revolution," the so-called U.S. president sprays his enemies with mustard gas.

It all fits naturally, says Willimon. "We're just exploring a layer to the presidency that is brutally honest about what it means to wield that degree of power."

Yet there is still some sense of fear to go with the loathing when a decision is made to craft a truly evil president. "Revolution's" Rockne S. O'Bannon can't go as far for NBC as Willimon has for Netflix. "It's important to us," O'Bannon says, "to make it clear that this isn't the real American government we're portraying."

Even if the president of the United States no longer occupies a protected class when it comes to fictionalized portrayals, Strock doubts it will have any lasting effect on the office itself. "These are reactions to how we see the presidency. It's nothing new. The presidency in general is America's royalty and spectacle. And we're all fascinated by it."

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